Friday, July 24, 2009

News from Dublin and Rotterdam

Speaking with the Irish about their country always includes discussion of economic health or woes. On our first Dublin day I visited Kilmainham Gaol where starving youngsters who had stolen a loaf of bread during the potato famine and political prisoners were incarcerated. The quality of despondency represented by the jail gave a window in to the dramatic work presented later by one Irish company, Junk Ensemble. Compared to the coal-smoke dulled Dublin I knew in the 1980‘s the city looks uplifted and vigorous now. But cabbies and everyone else will tell you the Celtic Tiger has been brought to its knees. Still, some institutions we saw seem to have remained well-endowed.

Service organization Dance Ireland runs a sleek facility called Dance House with multiple spacious studios, and computer and library access. They sponsored two programs of showcases for Irish artists within the Dublin Dance Festival. These shows begged the question whether fine facilities help in cultivating excellent work. Notable exceptions were works by Jean Butler, a championship Irish step dancer who is now investigating contemporary forms in an extremely vulnerable and compelling way, and Liz Roche whose sophisticated duet took partnering into a fresh terrain of obstruction and stillness.

The Dance House counterpart in Cork, Firkin Crane, seems to be limping along, under-endowed and with staff stretched thin in multiple capacities. In these times with our budgets at Bryn Mawr (and all other institutions with which I am allied) being cut, I certainly empathized with these valiant arts workers.

The Dublin Dance Festival made a great choice in engaging Laurie Uprichard, formerly director of the Danspace Project in New York, as director. The Festival is energized, with artists of high caliber and high levels of attendance, all of it animating the Temple Bar section of Dublin.

Artists whose work was featured in the Festival included Lucy Guerin from Australia whose work “Structure and Sadness” (pictured here) I had viewed multiple times on DVD but never live. Bryn Mawr will be presenting Guerin this September so it was helpful for me to see how much more visceral and detailed her work is in person. Rachid Ouramdane’s piece “Loin” was the most revelatory for me for its intelligence in the weaving of text using two distinct voices - one poetic, one reportorial - plus video displayed on oddly shaped projection surfaces, and radical movement states. Both Ouramdane’s and Guerin’s work is at a level of refinement in their unity of visual elements and choreography that we simply don’t see in the US; this has got to be in part the result of sufficient budgets and development time.

Wendy Houston is a seasoned British performer whose solo performance “Happy Hour” took place in a bar and used clever displacements of language relative to the actual event we were witnessing. Jose Navas’s solo “Miniatures” depended a little too heavily on its performer’s virtuosity and charisma and offered too little in terms of conscious shaping. Ioana Popovoci composed a curious and somewhat static play based on “Animal Farm” with small objects – absurdist, and charming to me in its obsessiveness.

The most controversial work seemed to be David Zambrano’s “Soul Project,” a display of ordinary folks in a vast hall doing their fanciest party dance moves in carnivalesque costumes. It sat at the border between participatory and captive viewing in a maddening way and lead to conversations about how the choreographer’s framing of the audience’s paradigm for viewing makes all the difference. It seemed that Zambrano had not thought all that thoroughly about it.

Our final day in Rotterdam was focused on Danny Yung’s “Tears of Barren Hill.” Since seeing this work on video in Hong Kong, I have held Yung in the highest esteem. He brings the classical form of Peking Opera into the most contemporary of settings and sets up resonance between a host of thematic and performative elements. “Barren Hill” was featured within Operadagen Rotterdam 2009, an impressive festival dedicated to alternative opera that is seeking ways to generate a new audience for the form. The festival’s programming, hospitality, graphics coordination, and press conference/public kick-off all seemed inventively conceived in that inimitably Dutch adventurous way.

The work “Tears of Barren Hill,” is at every turn exquisite and restrained. Artistically I am moved by Yung’s undressing and stripping away, seeking the barest essentials of his forms. Trained initially as an architect, it is as though he finds his way down to bone and marrow.

Thanks for sponsorship to the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through Dance Advance, the Dublin Dance Festival, and the Pennsylvania Presenters Travel Fund.