Julie Cunningham at Laban 9.11.18

Contemporary dance is like abstract expressionist art – both are pure forms of collaboration between creator and viewer.

This thought struck me midway through a performance at Laban theatre by Julie Cunningham because her work has all the restless energy and spiritual depth of a Jackson Pollack action painting yet only fulfils its mission when an audience makes its input.

What’s more, ten different audience members will likely have ten different interpretations of what the piece means. But that’s the joy of all modern art.

What’s not open to interpretation is that Cunningham’s grand theme is the human condition and the two works on show at Laban – m/e and To Be Me – were profoundly personal takes on that.

The first, performed solo on a bare stage, featured her in restless and repeating motion, as if contrasting the cyclical nature of life with the intellectual and emotional insights sparked by the creative process.

Cunningham, looking androgynous with cropped hair and shapeless costume, also seemed to be making a point about breaking free from the narrow limitations of gender.

And the sense of exploring contrasts was further underscored by soundtracking the piece with modern electronica counterpointed by a ravishing Shostakovich piano concerto and by peppering her choreography with allusions to her ballet training as well as to her time with contemporary dance legend Merce Cunningham (no relation).

Finally, she innately offered one other contrast – the ability to preserve an almost supernatural stillness while in the very act of moving.

The second part of the evening featured her with three other dancers – Hannah Burfield, Eleanor Perry and Seira Winning – who, dressed in startling mirror-image costumes of scarlet and black, plunged into the realms of gender divisions to the sound of performance poet Kate Tempest retelling the Greek myth of Tiresias whom the gods turned into a woman and later turned back into a man, albeit a blind one.

Tempest’s poetic cycle is a magnificent exploration of gender. But by the end of the show I was left feeling that Cunningham would prefer that gender was simply an irrelevance.

This was a stunning evening of thought-provoking art that challenged our most basic beliefs about what it is to be a human being. It’s a tribute to Trinity Laban and producer Kat Bridge that we were given the chance to see it.

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Early Music Festival at Blackheath Halls 8-10.11.18

The annual International Early Music Festival returned to newly revamped Blackheath Halls this year with its usual array of the unusual.

Shawms, curtals, crumhorns, rebecs and serpents lined up alongside tambors, theorbos, hurdy-gurdies, gitterns and psalteries to catch the public’s attention in the exhibition that attracts buyers, sellers and makers from around the world.

And there were dozens of performances by expert players of instruments that now seem to us to be downright bizarre.

Take the theorbo, for example. It’s a giant lute that, standing on its end, is the same height as an average British male.

And speaking of lutes, why did some of them have half a dozen strings while others had more than 20? The most likely explanation I heard was that rich medieval folk who could afford such things liked showing off.

During the three days of the festival, there were regular 40-minute recitals round the corner at the church of St Michael and All Angels, a strange Victorian gothic confection that perfectly reflected the festival’s sense of oddness.

The best of the performances I saw was by Wezi Elliott who brilliantly revealed the”l subtle delicacy of the might theorbo.

Each lunchtime and evening All Saints parish church hosted lovely concerts by the likes of Junior Trinity, the dazzling Flanders Recorder Quartet and acclaimed chamber ensemble Da Camera.

And each night there was a gala concert featuring major early music stars, including a programme of wonderful melancholic music by the Chelys viol consort at St Margaret’s and, as a grand finale for the festival, a barnstorming celebration of Handel at St Alfege’s by the marvellous Thomas Tallis Society Choir and the Orchestra of The Sixteen.

If you’ve never been to this festival, do your ears – and your soul – a favour and buy yourself a ticket next autumn. It’s an absolute joy.

Marina Collard at Laban 14.11.18

Dance, sound, film and light joined forces in choreographer Marina Collard’s existential investigation entitled What This Is, Is… at Laban theatre.

Centred on a flimsy white cube daubed to look like a breezeblock building, performers Tina Krasevec and Rahel Vonmoos moved around it and crept into it through a low gap as sound designer Paul Newland’s electronic throbs rippled the surface and inverted films of woodland and salt-marsh by Tom Paine and Tony Wadham glimmered on the oscillating canvas.

This combination, enhanced still further by Michael Mannion’s stark lighting, raised troubling questions about our perception of reality and about whether what we think of as sanctuary is really imprisonment.

The work was given even greater intensity by the audience being part of the show, Collard calling us all up on the stage with her dancers, thus demolishing the fourth wall between audience and performers, reality and fantasy.

It felt like a combination of Pink Floyd’s alienation epic The Wall and Antony Gormley’s great installation Blind Light – and it was as powerful as both.

And it brought to a glorious close a fabulous autumn season of dance laid on by Trinity Laban.

Gracefool Collective at Laban 9.10.18

This Really Is Too Much risked being exactly that – too much. Part dance, part spoken word, part slapstick, part feminist tract and all existential angst, the genre-hopping show at Laban Theatre flirted dangerously and wilfully with disaster.

But thanks to the skill and dynamism of the four performers from the Gracefool Collective, it turned out to be an intriguing and electrifying evening.

Kate Cox, Sofia Edstrand, Rachel Fullegar and Rebecca Holmberg – who all jointly devised the piece – took as their starting point the old political battle-cry “You’ve never had it so good.”

Using music ranging from Barry White to Vivaldi via Moondog and Handel, they used spoken word and dance to look at the way women are treated at work and in the home.

Mostly it involved, much like reality, a vicious cycle of patriarchal put-downs and patronisation interspersed with bursts of female empowerment.

There were neat vignettes, at once funny and sad, featuring the cast posing in their underwear as models for household goods. Another had Fullegar running pointlessly round and round the stage in six-inch stilettos and later as a beauty queen spouting Marxist economic theory.

Such paradoxes – sometimes depressing, sometimes absurd but always apt – seem to be the lifeblood of Gracefool and certainly this fascinating and important work was completely appropriate in today’s #MeToo world.

My only quibble was that the show felt slightly off-kilter, needing a more movement and fewer words to give its crucial message greater heft.

Pinocchio at the Albany 4.12.18

It’s tough to find new ways of presenting a fairytale as well-known and well-loved as Pinocchio without spoiling its inherent charm but theatre company Nearly There Yet have done just that with their delightful Christmas show at the Albany.

With a mix of acting, puppetry, circus and music, director Kaveh Rahnama and writer Mary Swan have turned Collodi’s fable about the wooden-hearted marionette who becomes a big-hearted boy into a magical entertainment for anyone aged between three and 93.

Of course, a theatrical vision is nothing without a cast. And the Albany cast were faultless, with Floria Da Silva as Pinocchio, Umar Butt as Geppetto, Rosie Rowlands as Fox and Ed Stephen as Cat brilliantly showing off their skills as singers, dancers, puppeteers, acrobats and jugglers.

A clever multi-purpose set by Alison Alexander, some even cleverer lighting by Will Monks and an original score by Liam Quinn added even more power to a piece that had the young audience in raptures.

I especially loved one sequence, done in silhouette with cutouts, when our hero was swallowed by a whale and another which featured Da Silva hula-hooping while balancing on a metre-high ball.

And the hit song of the show was undoubtedly the uproarious Deep Sea Blues sung by an angler fish and two prawns.

But among all the laughs there was plenty of emotion too as Pinocchio learnt how to be human the hard way.

It’s to the production’s credit that it managed to keep the fun quotient of this morality tale sky-high and avoided ever sounding preachy.

Steve Howe at the Albany 31.10.18

Any talk of living guitar heroes almost inevitably zooms in on Messrs Clapton, Beck and Page. But there are others who are just as amazing such as legendary Yes maestro Steve Howe.

And in case anyone had forgotten how good he is, he laid out his very considerable stall in a mesmerising acoustic gig at the Albany.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Howe revisited his remote past – he started playing in 1959 – took us through his prog pomp and brought us firmly up to date with compositions from the past couple of years.

In short, he gave us a potted history of rock and roll.

His programme included a brilliant version of Trambone, a song made famous by his own hero, pioneering guitar-picker Chet Atkins.

His days with Yes were covered by memorable versions of – among others – Masquerade, The Ancient, Mood For A Day, Clap and, of course, Roundabout.

And his latest works were represented by No Initial, a moving tribute to his musician son Virgil who died last year from a heart attack aged just 41.

The song added extra poignancy to the fact the Albany gig was raising funds for an award in honour of young local musician Ed Renshaw who committed suicide after a long battle with depression.

Howe rounded off his stunning set with Sketches In The Sun, from the 90s.

The crowd may have been small for a man who once sold out stadiums around the world. But what we lacked in numbers we more than made up for in love for this extraordinary talent.

Earlier, we were treated to 20-minute sets by three Renshaw award-winners – Jay Johnson, Sacha Thomas and Jack Patchett.

If they are typical of the new generation of guitarists, music-lovers have nothing to fear.

Cabaret at Laban 8.12.18

A dazzling central performance sent an already great production of the musical Cabaret into artistic orbit at Laban theatre and surely heralded the birth of a new star.

Barney Fritz was nothing less than sensational as the Emcee of Berlin’s Kit Kat Club and rightly deserved comparisons with Joel Grey who won an oscar for the same role in the legendary 1972 movie version.

The youngster managed to capture the glee, cynicism and sinister charisma of the character as he sang his way through showstopping numbers including Wilkommen, Two Ladies, The Money Songand If You Could See Her – sung with a gorilla.

And in director Karen Rabinowitz’s version, the cast of final-year Trinity Laban Musical Theatre students never shied away from Cabaret’s Nazi backdrop, which has a special resonance today with the disturbing rise of nationalism in the West.

Barney was brilliantly supported by an all-singing, all-dancing cast that included Harry Newton as American writer Cliff, Hannah McPherson as landlady Fraulein Schneider and Jenny Coates as Sally Bowles, the role that made Liza Minnelli a megastar.

Choreographer Graham Newell created some terrific sequences, particularly one involving a couple – Eleanor Turner and Calum Rickman – who had to keep their lips locked in a kiss throughout the routine.

And the live band, under Mark Smith, never missed a beat as they belted out the show’s matchless score.

My only quibble was that the set and costumes weren’t quite sleazy enough and the chorus wasn’t sexually aggressive enough.

But this is nitpicking. Overall, it was a stunning show – and I’ll eat my hat if Barney Fritz doesn’t become a staple of the West End.

For the record, Jake Lomas played the Emcee, Michael McGeough was Cliff, Hannah Qureshi played Fräulein Schneider and Amy Blanchard was Sally in half the four shows put on at Laban.

Jack Rake at The Greenwich Gallery 12.11.18

A sale of paintings by brilliant amateur artist Jack Rake at the Greenwich Gallery has raised more than £11,500 for the charity Freedom From Torture.

The pictures, covering more than 50 years and being exhibited for the first time, were donated by the artist’s son Mark, an eminent cancer specialist and long-time supporter of FFT who lives nearby.

Jack had always wanted to be a professional artist but in fact spent most of his long life as a practising doctor.

He was a close friend of acclaimed painter William Coldstream, whose circle included such giants of 20th century figurative art as Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Jacob Epstein and who – ironically – had always wanted to be a doctor.

Rake mastered an amazing range of styles, from beautiful Cezanne-like landscapes to minimalist views of London by way of flower paintings Cedric Morris would have been proud of and harrowing scenes of families torn apart, presumably by war, which could have come straight out of Edvard Munch’s imagination.

Yet despite the obvious inspirations, none of Rake’s work is ever just derivative – all the pictures pulsate with an inner voice that is uniquely his.

His wonderful paintings never had a public forum in his own lifetime. It is to the Greenwich Gallery’s eternal credit that he should finally have been given one now.

Simon Purcell at Oliver’s 27.11.18

South-east London is blessed with a seemingly endless supply of talented young jazz musicians. One of the main reasons is the presence of Trinity Laban’s acclaimed jazz faculty and another is Oliver’s bar, where so many rising stars have cut their performance teeth.

Both were on display when Oliver’s played host to a phenomenal gig by Simon Purcell, once Trinity’s jazz guru and now a full-time jobbing pianist, who brought together his old tenor sax pal Mark Lockheart and three of the very best of his ex-students, bassist Conor Chaplin, drummer Corrie Dick and trumpeter Laura Jurd, to create a night of musical magic in Greenwich.

The latter three play together in the Mercury-nominated band Dinosaur and it showed – they had an almost telepathic understanding as Purcell led this quintet in a series of freewheeling, stunning improvisations based on works by such legendary figures as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Bronislaw Kaper and Rich Perry.

It’s tough to pick out highlights when every tune they played was a joy.

There was a fantastic percussion and bass duet by Messrs Dick and Chaplin on Perry’s amazing composition Squishy.

But at a pinch I’d opt for the whole ensemble’s virtuoso extemporisations on Rollins’ I’m An Old Cowhand, which filled most of the second half of their set.

It not only showed off the extraordinary talents of each member of the band but also underscored the widely-held view among experts that Jurd is a world-class trumpeter.

In fact the whole gig was world-class and was, as Purcell himself said at the end, a demonstration of why live improvised music is just about as good as it gets.