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Animated Edition - Winter 2008
Critical faculties
Donald Hutera gets up off his bum and ventures into the wonderful world of site-specific performance
What's one of the hardest things about being a dance or theatre critic? I'm sitting on the answer as I type these words. Yes, I do mean my bottom. I spend far too much of my life in a sedentary position, either watching others move around or struggling to find the best ways to describe how they did so. It's probably why I'm almost automatically inclined to look favourably upon performances that do away with fixed seats, allowing me to move about and shift my, uh, perspective.

Where would we be without site-specific productions? In an auditorium facing a stage, that's where, when instead we could be out in all manner of environments mingling with the real world. Give me dance that spills into the streets or spreads itself about in unexpected locations such as libraries (Stephan Koplowitz's Dance Umbrella presentation 'Babel Index' at the British Library), shopping malls (Lea Anderson's Cholmondeleys and Featherstonehaughs working literally on multiple levels in 'Bubblehead' at The Peacocks, Woking) and furniture stores(the small but plucky young company Stacked Wonky paying homage to the Titanic amidst the sofas, tables and lighting fixtures in the basement of a Tottenham Court Road shop).

In an inviting departure from its usual roster of ticketed indoor performances, the most recent Dance Umbrella offered a pair of free outdoor events. Set to Callas recordings, 'Transports Exceptionnels' was a heroically scaled love duet by Dominique Boivin, of France's Compagnie Beau Geste, for the dancer Philippe Priasso and a mechanical digger. Man and machine met in a graceful spectacle of tender or slightly tense give-and-take set on the grass just below the London Eye. An original idea executed with flair, it was only twenty minutes long. An audience of all ages lapped it up. Good news: it might tour the UK next year.

'Solo 30X30'was, indeed, a solo by the Canadian dancer Paul-André Fortier. The titular numbers indicate both the minutes that the piece lasts and the number of consecutive days he performed it, rain or shine, starting on October 3. Time and location - 1.30pm on a pedestrian walk in front of Liverpool Street Station - never varied.

'Solo' has been to Newcastle, Ottawa, Montreal, Nancy, Yamaguchi and Bolzano. In each city the black-clad Fortier, 59, places himself in a busy urban space and responds to it via an expansive yet precisely detailed vocabulary of elegantly rendered gestures and steps. It's as if this beautifully vital, mature man is measuring himself against his surroundings. That includes us.

With Fortier, Umbrella was bringing dance to the public whether or not they wanted it.

By far the most unique spot in which I've seen live performance of late was Dorset's Hambledon Hill, where the Brighton company Red Earth engineered the large-scale, butoh-influenced epic 'Enclosure' as part of the festival Inside Out. This was one show you had to choose to attend. Despite a steady, blowing September rain more than 500 hardy people (plus dogs and a pet ferret) trekked uphill and along a rough,uneven landscape to witness a striking and aptly-described 'performance journey.'

More recently I popped into Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to see 'One Way, Three Times' by the Midlands-based choreographer Katye Coe. What an amazing place! This must be the first hospital I was ever glad to visit and sad to leave. It's a veritable arts centre, with paintings, sculpture or photography everywhere and an ongoing programme of music, dance and theatre. The latter is funded not by the National Health Service but entirely through private donations,sponsorship and the hospital's own Health Charity.

Coe's lunch-time trio was co-presented by the Breathing Space, adance-in-health initiative that you can read about elsewhere in this issue. The piece occurred in a busy spot in the hospital's vast centralatrium. It was a simple, suitable exercise for dancers whose rigid, criss-crossing paths eventually warmed up into freer and more playful interactions. I loved the elderly gentleman who passed unwittingly through the space as the dance happened, or the cleaning lady assiduously manoeuvreing her dust mop along its periphery. Also the expressions of bafflement, indifference or delight on the faces of the public.

A key pleasure in all of these experiences is their communal nature, and the opportunities for people-watching they afford.Naturally they're happening abroad, too. This past September I was in Oslo for the fifth edition of the CODA dance festival. There I caught 'Pustestripe', an outdoor dance installation by the veteran Norwegian choreographer Kjersti Engebrigtsen featuring three dancers inside an oblong, glass-sided container shaped like a railway carriage. This was another abstract and innately metaphorical journey. The recessed lighting was pretty and the pre-recorded astral soundtrack quite effective. It was skillfully performed, too. But the real fun was observing curious passersby whose reactions appeared to run a gamut from 'This is odd' to 'This is silly' to 'This is boring and I've got better things to do.' Those who did stay had, I trust, few or no regrets.

Another Nordic sight I'll not forget were students from Helsinki's Theatre Academy at last July's Full Moon, a dance festival held annually in the small Finnish town of Pyhäjärvi. Dressed like wacky emigrants, they paraded at dusk down main street in view of tough-looking yet amused local youth parked in their hot rods. Nobody got beat up, but then Full Moon has been around for fifteen years. No matter their age, presumably the town's residents have had ample time to become accustomed to the eccentric exhibitionism of visiting artists. Long may such activity thrive everywhere.

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 and summer 2005 editions of Animated, and writes Critical Faculties as a regular column.


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Animated: Winter 2008