Thursday, March 24, 2016

Tost - conversing but not communicating (Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre)

A year after my first experience of contemporary dance, I’m still trying to get my head around the art form. Pony Dance’s brand of high energy, live music-backed prancing and wiggling – simultaneously exuberant and exhibitionist yet skilful – is relatively easy to read. (For blog followers of a certain vintage, it’s what the kids from FAME must have got up to when the cameras weren’t rolling!)

But this more controlled performance from Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre is a much more difficult artwork to get to grips with.

At the premiere of Tost in the MAC last Saturday evening as part of Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, the two performers stood at opposite sides of the stage, hands by their sides, eyes fixed ahead. (The show’s title has its roots in the Irish for ‘silent’.)

A long string of dental floss connected their mouths. The audience filed into their seats to watch this domestic scene. Over ten or fifteen minutes, Jenny Ecke and Dylan Quinn shuffled towards each other, gathering the loose floss into their mouths. At times taut, sometimes sagging, yet never quite broken. Dressed in mundane work clothes, perhaps this represented the thin and tenuous link between many household couples.

Each scene was punctuated by the liturgy of a football being dipped in chalky paint and pressed against the dark back wall of the theatre. Like prisoners marking the completed days of their sentence on a cell wall, or points scored being duly noted. Hands were then washed in porcelain bowls and dried on sheets strung up on a washing line at each side of the stage.

Three large aerofoil blades rotated above the performers heads throughout the hour long show, driven by the draught of two small fans. Perhaps a sign of the external forces and pressures constantly being exerted on life. Paddy McCann’s set was definitely brutalist industrial, echoed by Andy Garby’s metallic sound design.

A caged office filled with tall stacks of paper provided an opportunity for the couple to converse. But rather than discuss the important looking documentation, they recited whimsical nursery rhymes. Conversing but not communicating.

The dancers reached their hands out behind their backs but didn’t look, nearly tripping over each other, swirling around the stage like banshees. Until a sudden shock in the final scene there was no contact between the couple. That final scene left Dylan trying to prop up his flaccid partner and keep her upright. In the midst of catastrophe, they no longer had the strength remaining to sustain each other. They were finished.

The show’s subtitle is “silence can be a dangerous thing”.
“The language of inclusion and exclusion feeds the daily diatribe of the other, where what is heard is not necessarily what is said. If the language that gives us a set of ‘signs’ and ‘rules’ becomes vulnerable or is unknown, how do we communicate and where does the true meaning of what we are communicating reside?”

You can read some more of Dylan Quinn’s thinking in my interview with him in the preview post I published last week.

There’s a hidden complexity to the slow controlled movements, the trust between the performers, and Jenny’s ability to dance in high heels across loose sheets of A4 paper scattered on a floor (a bigger health and safety disaster waiting to happen than the circling blades overhead).

Certainly in Saturday night’s performance of Tost, while there were two people present on stage, the duet they performed was discordant.

At first I found Tost a little underwhelming, but it grew on me more the longer I delayed finishing the review. I’m not entirely sure I’m even beginning to read the performance correctly. A Q&A afterwards with the cast and creative team would have been a great extension to the performance. [You can read John Higgins’ thoughts over at Culture Northern Ireland.] But Dylan Quinn is okay with that. He told me:
“Dance is not going to answer all the questions but it might be one other way of trying to investigate the subject matter. Just like abstract poetry and writing it doesn’t answer the questions but it might just raise some more questions.”
Publicity photos: Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre (and not representative of the show!)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Anomalisa … a confusing film with superb animation exploring an anti-hero’s breakdown (QFT until 31 March)

Anomalisa is the most surreal movie you’ll see all year. Probably the most lifelike stop-motion film you’ll have seen. And definitely the most confusing.

The film begins with an oppressive mêlée of voices, building up to a crescendo. Trapped in a flying metal tube is Michael Stone, a customer service author and guru, flying into Cincinnati to speak at a conference. His life is a disappointment.

Married with a child at home, Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) carries a letter from a lost love in the city. His meeting over a Martini to become reacquainted with Bella doesn’t go to plan. Later in the evening, while trying to straighten himself out from a panic attack, Michael finds good company in hotel guest Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), followed by lust though probably not love. But the encounter disturbs his melancholic disposition.

The puppet-like creatures that inhabit Michael’s world with their fractured mask faces nearly all speak with the same voice – that of Tom Noonan – regardless of gender.

Michael’s perception of those around him is clearly out of sync with reality, perhaps suggestive of a mental breakdown. He struggles with small talk, constantly being misheard and misunderstood. His own body language and lack of awareness is echoed in those around him who often appear to be working and living on autopilot. (The hotel receptionist doesn’t need to look down at the screen or keyboard, yet furiously types and finds Michael a quiet room.)

Haunted by ghosts, his past and his present, hallucinations and reality are more similar than they should. The scene in the hotel manager’s office with the sunken meeting area and the golf buggy had more than a touch of sometime collaborator Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep.

Perhaps one of many flaws in Michael Stone’s worldview is summed up in his one night stand’s choice of song: “Girls just want to have fun”. Anomalisa is rated 15 in the UK: the animation perhaps makes the sex scene at the centre of the middle act of the film more realistic given the less than fabulous but really quite normal bodies portrayed.
“Sometimes there's no lesson. That's a lesson in itself.”

Despite the unique feel and brilliant animation, Anomalisa was a disappointment. Charlie Kaufman's plot remained cryptic for far too long, the opening act drifted, and the surreal elements were all too brief. What could so easily have been a much gossiped about sensation turned out to be a confusing storyline that didn’t live up to much of the hype. Still it is ninety minutes like nothing else you'll watch this year.

Anomalisa is being screened in Queen's Film Theatre between Friday 18 and Thursday 31 March.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Preview of TOST (Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre in The MAC on Saturday 19) #imaginebelfast

Last year I made my first foray into the world of dance by interviewing Dylan Quinn about and then attending and reviewing his new work The 5th Province. (Slugger O’Toole had never had a post about dance before!)

Dylan is back in the MAC this Saturday evening with Tost, the second in a loose trilogy of works. The show’s title has its roots in the Irish for ‘silent’ and the two person performance intends to explore “the communication in between, which is not spoken”.

On this island there was and continues to be much silence as people have chosen to overlook and not report abusive and murderous acts. There is silence too as instances of racism, homophobia, racism, xenophobia and sexism are condoned and go unchallenged, perhaps accepted as ‘normal’.

However, silence is international. Dancer and director Dylan Quinn says:
“In our contemporary world millions are being forced to risk their lives in the search for security. As geographical borders are being crossed so too are entrenched identities being questioned.

“The language of inclusion and exclusion feeds the daily diatribe of the other, where what is heard is not necessarily what is said. If the language that gives us a set of ‘signs’ and ‘rules’ becomes vulnerable or is unknown, how do we communicate and where does the true meaning of what we are communicating reside?
Dylan recalls family gatherings with awkward static hugs that are “full of energy but not at all comfortable” as people meet who are not physically comfortable with one another. At other times there can be an awkwardness at not knowing what to say. He calls this “charged silence”. Across the different scenes of the show, the performers will struggle to communicate with each other. Other noise may even fill the silent gap between them.

Devised by Jenny Ecke and Dylan Quinn, Tost is complemented by Andy Garbi’s music and Paddy McCann’s sharp set design that threatens silence over the heads of the performers.

If you’ve never been to a dance show, don’t worry! It will feel unfamiliar and foreign. But like a snatch of a poem or a line of dialogue from a film, some aspect will pierce the guard you’ll have raised and stay with you as you leave the venue.

Dylan says that dance “gives you a different perception and exploration of some of the things that are current and relevant now”.
“It’s for people who are interested in questioning those things, investigating and experiencing what might just make you look at the world differently or wonder how other people look at it.

“The Imagine Festival is a perfect festival for us to be involved. Owen Jones is talking. [Sold Out] People who are interested in the type of things he is saying could come to this, even if not dance viewers at all, and recognise that there’s investigation going on here. It’s not a show about how high the dancers legs go, but instead getting people to think about social and political and cultural issues of now.

“We continue to prioritise certain ways of learning and exploring things, certain ways of accepting that this is the right way to do things. And as the world is changing that is starting to fragment and there are other ways of interacting with and questioning the world. Dance is not going to answer all the questions but it might be one other way of trying to investigate the subject matter. Just like abstract poetry and writing it doesn’t answer the questions but it might just raise some more questions.”

Tost premieres in The MAC this Saturday 19 March at 8pm (£15), and will also be performed on Wednesday 23 March in the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh (£7). After Tost, Dylan and Jenny head off to perform other previous works at international festivals in Paris and Dublin.

Updated - review of the show.

Gordon Osràm's Funeral - celebrating a disappeared artist in an abandoned city centre building #ImagineBelfast

"Why doesn't he stop me?" asks Clare, one of the Polar Pussies who have 'intervened' at Gordon Osràm's artistic funeral.

The 45 year old legend, adopted from working class parents grew up in a succession of foster homes before joining an invigorating collective in Berlin.

A masked collaboration with partner Clare Black broke down when the split irrevocably. After years of solo work, Gordon vanished from public life until the announcement of Gordon Osràm's Funeral.

The audience become participants in an autobiographical investigation of Gordon Osram's life, relationships and works.

Hidden speakers, cameras, video, a compère - as well as artists Clare and Jessica dressed up as polar bears - drive the narrative forward.

At times the action splits across different areas of the old wooden warehouse before recombining in the upstairs arena. A live video feed tends to keep those who lag upstairs informed about the activity elsewhere in the multi-level installation.

Clare's previously relationship with Gordon is interrogated while Jessica discovers hidden secrets about her friend.

Are we Gordonites or Gordontards?

Are we who we say we are? Do we tell the truth or conceal? Who are we? What is our legacy?

Wrap up warm, arrive early to have time to explore the artworks before the performance begins, and become immersed in the work of a living legend and the quality of this abandoned building.

As part of the Imagine Festival of Politics and Ideas, Accidental Theatre deliver this spell binding performance in Riddel’s Warehouse, Ann Street (next door to the vehicle entrance to Musgrave Street Police Station) at 7.30pm each evening until Saturday 19 March.

Tickets from £13. Bar opens at 7pm. (£7 ticket available for a live stream of the Friday and Saturday night performances.)

Details of the performance's April tour available on Accidental Theatre's website: Dublin (13-16 in The Complex), Armagh (20-21 in Shanbles Market) and Derry (23 in The Playhouse). Update - Belfast run extended with 7pm shows added on Thursday 24 and Saturday 26 March.

Update - Great review from John Higgins on Culture Northern Ireland.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Turn of the Screw (NI Opera): an intimate, well-acted opera with a tight cast and great set

NI Opera’s The Turn of the Screw is on a completely different scale to previous operas that I’ve seen. (You can still count them all on the fingers of one hand!)

A cast of six inhabit a country house looked after by housekeeper Mrs Grose (played by Yvonne Howard). It’s a ghost story of sorts. An unnamed governess (Katie Bird) takes up a post to look after two children for their guardian uncle who is too busy to care for them. As the story develops, unexpected characters from the family’s past appear around the property, often staring through windows and doors.

While Flora (Lucia Vernon-Long) and Miles (Garbhan McEnoy) at first seem happy and carefree, the actions of the former valet Peter Quint (Sam Furness) and a previous governess Miss Jessel (Giselle Allen) may have had a lasting and detrimental influence on the children. By the second act, phantasmic apparitions have increased the sense of terror and the children begin to speak of terrible acts.

You can wander into most films and plays with no notion of the plot and enjoy them. Opera benefits from a solid understanding of the framework of the storyline to which you can link the scenes and snippets of on stage action. Otherwise the storyline becomes very murky and any difficulty perceiving the lyrics leads to frustration. The synopsis in the programme booklet is worth reading before the lights go down!

The small cast brings with it an intensity of acting that – along with the music – means The Turn of the Screw would verge on becoming a musical if it wasn’t for the operatic style of the singing. Lucia Vernon-Long’s pure soprano voice blended delicately with the less powerful treble voice of Year 8 pupil Garbhan McEnoy as the siblings sing nursery rhymes and mess about musically on the way to church.

The stripped back cast is coupled with a minimalist musical accompaniment: just fifteen musicians under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers are crammed into an orchestra pit I hadn’t realised existed under the Lyric stage. Britten’s discordant score makes as much use of woodwind and percussion as strings. During the prologue the lyrics are beautifully clear as they are sung over the thinnest strains of piano. However, there are times later in the performance when the orchestra becomes too enthusiastic and threaten to drown out the cast.

Set designer Annemarie Woods conceived layers of hinged dingy grey walls that move about the stage and combine to create each new location. The scene changes are choreographed together with precision lighting that allows beams of sunlight to illuminate the otherwise moribund house. Characters step out from gloomy corners into rooms, adding to the eerie atmosphere. Dynamic silhouettes add to the drama.

The opera is based on a story by Henry James. Myfanwy Piper wrote the libretto. There are autobiographical elements – some perhaps disturbing – in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera which explores desire, conscience and class.

The Turn of the Screw was first produced by NI Opera and directed by Oliver Mears back in 2012. Since then it has travelled to English festivals and most recently to Moscow (supported by the British Council). Those who fret about public funding of local arts and culture should not forget the international opportunities for artists’ performance as well as the portrayal of Northern Ireland as a creative hub.

After two sell-out performances in the Lyric Theatre, The Tale of the Screw heads to Derry’s Millennium Forum on Tuesday 15 March. NI Opera return with Mozart's Don Giovanni in the Grand Opera House on 18-19 November.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Celebration of Women in Ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

On Saturday 5 March, a service of thanksgiving and celebration was held in Newtownbreda Presbyterian Church.

The service marked the 90th anniversary of ordination of women to the eldership in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the 40th anniversary of ordination of women to ministry within the denomination.

Rev Ruth Patterson - the first women to be ordained in PCI spoke, along with Rev John Bell (Iona Community). You can listen back to their remarks.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Newry playwright Abbie Spallen awarded $150,000 literary prize

“Lifechanging” is how Abbie Spallen describes her unexpected win. “It comes completely out of the blue.”

The Windham-Campbell Prize eschews application and open submission processes and does not tease with public shortlisting. Instead, a set of experts make nominations which are whittled down by specialist juries before a nine person selection committee makes the final decision.

Some winners find the email notifying them of the award in their spam folder; others think the phone call or answering machine message is a prank.

The sizeable literary grants ($150,000 or just over £100,000) are administered by Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and annually bestowed upon nine authors who write in English – three fiction, three non-fiction and three drama – as a result of a gift from the late novelist Donald Windham in memory of his partner Sandy M Campbell.

Pumpgirl, while not her first play, launched Spallen’s career back in 2006, being performed in Edinburgh and London before transferring to New York and returning to the Lyric Theatre for its Irish première in 2008. Spallen wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation. She was awarded The Stewart Parker Trust New Playwright Bursary in 2009 and has been supported by a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council Northern Ireland (who also fund venues and companies who have commissioned her work).

The playwright is currently working on a number of “huge” projects including a 25 character historical Swiftian satire, an all female country and western musical set in South Armagh for the Lyric (with Conor Mitchell) alongside plays on topics as diverse as the Irish financial crisis and pharmaceuticals used for the purposes of torture.

“They’re all coming to fruition now. There could be a glut of plays in the next couple of years!”

The award provides security that few artists ever achieve.

“It gives me the freedom to do the work that I want to do, and not to have to do a money gig, which is the most beautiful thing a writer can have … I went through a period last year where I was ill, and I did start to think we don’t get any sick pay, we don’t get any holiday pay and we don’t get any pension, and if we can’t work we don’t eat. This means I don’t live in fear of my boiler packing in and I don’t live from day to day any more. I’m not used to that yet.”

Spallen will use part of the prize to fund the production of a short film.

“I’m going to take a small amount off the top to write and direct my first short film. I’ve written a short film before, but I’m going to direct [this one] myself. I’m really excited about that … no interference from anybody and greater control over the edit. That’s a joy: nobody gets a chance to do that.”

She adds:

“I really love the idea of branching into film as well because as a canvass it allows me to be as big as I need to be because my work is getting bigger and bigger and bigger and I can play so much more on film that I can in theatre, though I’ll always love theatre and I will always work in theatre.”

While scripts for plays can be published, there’s a sense that the work finishes when the actors walk off the stage. Spallen feels that with film “you have a finished product at the end of it and it stays alive”.

She describes Tinderbox Theatre Company’s approach to producing Lally the Scut in The MAC as “brilliant”, casting twelve local actors (rather than using seven and doubling up characters). Tinderbox dramaturg Hanna Slattne says that the play “is without doubt the strongest script I received on my desk … and we at Tinderbox are very proud to have been part of her journey”.

Reviewing the play last April, I wrote:

“Abbie Spallen is like an angry prophetess shouting at us through the dialogue about much of what’s rotten in our society ... starting with the fact that the child at the centre of this drama is never named …

There are no sacred cows unwilling to be sacrificed: family, church, media and politicians all get chopped off at the knees by the playwright’s satirical pen as she amplifies the failings of society …

Lally the Scut is a complex, multi-layered play that shocks, challenges and blackly entertains. Tragedy mixed with moments of pantomime and horror. Abbie Spallen shares her dark and sinister imagination (terrorist puppets and that mincer!) and twelve capable actors drag the audience through the stinking mud of institutions and society to disturb us into addressing the rot. I can think of no good reason not to see Tinderbox NI’s production.”

Spallen hopes to stay herself and not be too affected by the award.

“I’m over the moon. It’s life changing. When they told me about the award I think I gibbered for ten minutes.”

It will have sunk in my the time she travels to Connecticut in the fall September for the award ceremony and the associated four day literary festival. After that, Spallen fancies fulfilling a long held dream of travelling across the US on the Amtrak, visiting colleagues in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

While you can read about the award in the Irish Times and the Guardian, local media seems slower to celebrate Spallen’s success. And while local politicians flood social media with commentary on boxers and sporting team results, few if any have raised a tweet or updated Facebook to toast the Newry playwright.