Sonya Lindfors’ One Drop. Photo © Tuukka Ervasti


Under Dance Umbrella 2023

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Sonya Lindfors’ One Drop. Photo © Tuukka Ervasti
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London’s Dance Umbrella keeps moving with the times, 45 years on

It is testament to Dance Umbrella’s programming that this year’s selection of pieces defy comparison. After 45 years, the festival remains an essential hub, ‘Moving London’ with international dance talent. Against the backdrop of a fractured, polarised and frequently violent world, attending Dance Umbrella feels like both a privilege and a balm – a brighter place to land, even if merely for an hour.

That is not to say that the 2023 programme is sweet and breezy. Many pieces mine complex, thorny themes. But wit, humour and a sense of rebound from places of pain linger long after the performances, used as tools to remind us of dance’s limitless ability to confront the dark using light, to shapeshift from the ridiculous to the profound in a heartbeat.

Su PinWen, Girl’s Notes. Photo © Wei Wu-Ying
Su PinWen, Girl’s Notes. Photo © Wei Wu-Ying

‘If you understand the art of acting cute well, you can have men’s attention forever.’ This is quoted from The History of Beauty, a Taiwanese text featured in Girl’s Notes by Su PinWen, one half of the double bill (with Alexandre Fandard’s Comme un Symbole) entitled ‘Change Tempo’. Su (he/they) balances the book itself upon their head for the entirety of the show, bar one moment where they let it tumble and slam to the stage in anguish. Donning a flimsy cream slip dress, they empty a suitcase of everyday items and ceremoniously carry out tasks; ceremonious equates to sarcastic when the task is making coffee. They maintain a slight smile. Not quite a grin, but enough to avoid criticism for not smiling, as often happens, when you’re a woman.

To a soothing background of piano Nocturnes, played live by Lin Mae-Ke, Su kneels downstage wearing nothing but a pair of surgical gloves. Holding a vibrator against their neck, they make vaguely erotic gestures with the other hand, porcelain smile untouched. Preparing coffee and (implied) performative sex acts are placed on par, interchangeable acts of service.

In Girl’s Notes, the nuances of cuteness are presented slowly and surely, sometimes inspiring laughs, other times uncomfortable gulps: cute but vulnerable, cute but powerful, cute but manipulative, or manipulated. And Su remains restricted by the balancing of the book. Full nudity feels like sheer exposure, almost unbearable on our part, given the context of the male gaze as the most desired indicator of a woman’s success. As the show continues, the nudity anonymises Su, and though there are flickers of bodily autonomy – the sense that nakedness is an assertive act – it still feels more airless than liberating.

Thick in sarcasm, rebellion, and in that sly smile that definitely knows more than we do, Girl’s Notes interrogates gender and nudity norms, and both angers and tickles us while doing so. As the body morphs between object, vessel, and desire, it brings to attention all the minute things we might unconsciously juggle, edit and enhance to feel accepted identifying as a specific gender. Su embodies the precarity of being a ‘pretty’ woman in a chokehold of tradition. The wicked humour of this dark reality is that Su holds the cards; etiquette is trickery, and it is the men who are being tricked.

Ioanna Paraskevopoulou, Georgios Kotsifakis in MOS. Photo © Pinemopi Gerasimou
Ioanna Paraskevopoulou, Georgios Kotsifakis in MOS. Photo © Pinemopi Gerasimou

MOS, by Greek artist Ioanna Paraskevopoulou, is a dance generated entirely by filmmaking foley, which reproduces everyday sound effects and adds them post-production. Combined with audio-visual disciplines, the question of ‘What is contemporary dance?’ is re-considered. In the world of MOS, this definition expands only as far as foley. But as it turns out, that is quite far.

The stage is a feast for the eyes. Rocks, plungers and buckets of water are meticulously placed, sat unassuming until their purposes are wonderfully revealed. A quirky, instructional monologue rattles away on a screen behind Paraskevopoulou and fellow performer Georgios Kotsifakis, who create sound for the actions of both each other and film excerpts. The keen connection between sound and action creates a choreography of rhythm, organically syncopated by mundane actions. The pair push, stamp, crunch and bend to muster sound, and movement emerges as a secondary effect. Notably, they position a screen behind the audience on which they fixate, aligning their sounds with galloping horses, a punch-up, and dancers in the street. The audience crane their necks backwards, until realising the show remains in front: Kotsifakis and Paraskevopoulou’s unblinking, steely concentration.

Until its end, when they tap dance on wooden surfaces to relentless beats, they remain emotionless, in keeping with the dry monologue now reappearing on the screen: ‘what do we do now?’ The audience relish the simplicity of a concept established and repeated, an exhausting, hilarious completion of tasks.
A film counterpart, ‘All she likes is popping bubble wrap’, is of a similar tone. However, compared to the stage, where humour sparks from their witty, zippy connection, the film feels a little flat. The foley concept is only enduringly fun to watch when powered by the relationality of two bodies in a game-like set up. That said, the film is still a chance to grasp Paraskevopoulou’s savvy style, if you couldn’t make or access the live show, as are many of the films in Dance Umbrella’s digital programme. (Girl’s Notes, for example, features a film only 3 minutes long that might struggle to stand alone, but describes the live show in a nutshell.)

Paraskevopoulou’s work encourages more active listening, as a (maybe) unintentional comment on how passively we lay it on top of other art forms. Sound is celebrated as its own entity. So why is an audiovisual piece in a dance festival? MOS demonstrates generative tools for movement that are unserious and pedestrian, yet endearing and amusing. Military precision does not exactly constitute emotional impact, but MOS is a heightened dance of sound and focus, and one that made me not hear but listen to audience laugher, in a new way.

Sonya Lindfors’ One Drop. Photo © Tuukka Ervasti
Sonya Lindfors’ One Drop. Photo © Tuukka Ervasti

Laughter is sustained into One Drop by Sonya Lindfors (Cameroon/Finland), a piece with both big anticipation and raucous aftermath, featuring an all-black cast, including an opera singer. Capitalism, coloniality and modernity are concepts implied and theatricalised, tossed around and dissected, in an ‘autopsy of the Western Stage’. Where to begin?

Almost 2 hours long, One Drop’s first success is that it didn’t feel it. Reggae style drumbeats, rhythms known as ‘one drop’, loosen the audience as two performers freestyle; movement grounded in the restless feet and swaying hips. Later, in a stark shift in mood (a frequent occurrence) haunting opera vocals swamp the space as one performer ripples lethargically in an impossibly sparkly gold dress, refracting stage lights into dazzling stars. She moves softly, but her fists are clenched.

Somewhere in the middle of the show, the fourth wall is abruptly broken by a voice from the audience: a performer throwing conversational banter as she struts down the stairs and talks to us and, to the dismay of many, expects answers. What does it mean to be a Black contemporary artist, to make it into a white organisation, like the one we are all sat in? She describes what sounds like elitism in dance industries, but is actually racism. Next, she demands resources to support her cause. Audience members reluctantly empty their pockets of phones, gold jewellery, and feeble offering of Cadbury’s chocolate.

In the second half of the show, the stage is entirely draped in white sheets (carried out by the choreographer herself, in a white hazmat suit). Enter, what Lindfors says she has never seen done before: a black opera singer singing classical songs, smeared in blood. The dancers then gather as an ignorant theatre group attempting to make a play about colonialism. It puts many of us to silent shame by exposing what history has erased, then cracks us into goofy laughter as the performers bumble about, trying to piece together an entire historical landscape of colonisation.

One Drop is of a huge scale, belonging to many categories inextricably linked; nothing occurs in a vacuum. Hearing Lindfors speak post-show, I found myself seeking explanation for what were clearly metaphors. Some felt blindingly obvious later on: the gold dress representing the black body as ‘ore’, a gold mine, for slave traders. But much of the piece is meant to be posed, not answered. One Drop rebels exclusivity, claims traditionally white concepts, such as opera, and restyles them using exuberant lights, slick irony and contrasting genres of movement and music. It feels like a fever dream, a confusing, exciting jumble of references, not to mention an elastic sense of time. Tenses slip inexplicably. Traces of Black ancestry leak into utopias imagined in the form of strobe lights. And a delicate duet, so ambiguous as we gradually lose it to stage haze, feels like a memory belonging to neither past nor future.

Because of, not despite, its existentialism, One Drop bounces back to alluring satire and play. The entire experience is jovial, from Lindfors’ personal introduction in the foyer to her stage appearance. And with October being Black History Month in the UK, the celebratory affirmation of safe community rendered the evening deeply necessary. I vividly recall the buzz, but pennies are still dropping; I fear what I missed. References elude me due to lack of context and inevitable ignorance. With my patchwork understanding, I caught what I could, but works like this feel crucial to discovering new avenues of perspective.

Blue Quote Mark

Connecting to humans onstage feels less of a preference and more of a necessity

Blue Quote Mark

Themes of gender and race are endlessly redressed by dance and its abundance of innovative forms. We will likely never exhaust the complexity of such themes, but I am thankful that joy does not escape the process. If a piece can make us laugh, we see the person behind the dancer, and connecting to humans onstage feels less of a preference and more of a necessity. Dance Umbrella stays true to its word about ‘Moving London’, moving us towards those hefty conversations born out of dance, while never losing a lightness we are all in need of. 

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