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push 04

'Another America: Fire', 'Awakening', 'Two Step'

Form struggling with function

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

Septebmer 17, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Push 2004 presented at Sadler’s Wells 17 September 2004 two works: "Another America: Fire", story, libretto and music by Errollyn Wallen and "Awakening "choreographed by Ben Love and composer, Paul Gladstone Reid. Push 2004 also presented a playby Rhashan Stone, "Two Step" which was performed at the Almeida Theatre. One could see from the Sadler’s Wells presentation the amount of time and effort (workshops for these works began in July 2003), and money that went into these works. One also wondered at some of the choices made in direction and production that didn’t take away from the artists commented portrayals or exceptional skills but skewed transitions and lessened legibility. Program notes of the works on offer also mentioned elements that were not in evidence. One wondered, though, mostly about the politics behind choosing in particular nineteenth century music and movement vocabulary for a ballet about a Ghanaian tale from the Ashanti people.

Artistic director Josette Bushell-Mingo’s program note states the aim of the push 2004 presentation is to create great work. A visit to the push website indicates that the point behind making a new play, opera and ballet for the push 2004 (there have been numerous push projects and productions every year since 2001) was to create high quality artistic relationships between Black artists and established mainstream arts organisations. Push 2004 presentation sets out to dispel the notion that Black representations in British mainstream arts are not possible.

For Bushell-Mingo “Black” is an adjective standing for any group or community of people who feel discriminated against because of their colour, religion, gender, sexuality or ability. In the post-show talk, Bushell-Mingo spoke passionately about access: access for artists from clusters within British society, African, Asian, Oceanic, Disabled peoples who feel excluded from working within mainstream opera and classical ballet, and access for the communities of these same peoples who feel alienated from productions at Sadler’s Wells, Royal Opera House, English National, and other mainstream venues. Bushell-Mingo believes this alienation is a result of mainstream venues seemingly limited amount of work for which these communities can feel an empathy for or ownership of. Push 2004 strategy is to create work that includes the multiple experiences and diverse traditional outlooks that are present in British society -- laterally as far as ethnic and cultural distinctiveness is concerned, and hierarchically as far as class.

Bushell-Mingo also indicated that these presentations were an opportunity to prove the efficacy of Black British artists and their potential value for making and performing credible, high calibre work. Indeed this one aim was the most commented on given by audience members who praised push 2004 accomplishments at the post show discussion. The artists of push 2004 had essentially “pulled it off”; performed their work in a mainstream theatre with the support of several notable stakeholders and funders: Royal Opera House, Almeida Theatre, English National Opera, Jerwood, JP Morgan, Arts Council of England to name a few.

The question remains though: why nineteenth century classical ballet? Perhaps it is because this is where the allure of classical ballet resides. This is the given repertory of skill needed for classical ballet neophytes but is notoriously the one area of expertise British dancers of African and Asian descent are possibly advised against or avoid entirely. The choreographer of "Awakening," Ben Love, commented at the post-show talk that dancers of African and Asian heritage here in Britain choose contemporary and jazz over classical ballet because it is "easier". One surmises from Love’s comment that the avoidance of classical ballet is an issue of accessibility: accessibility to the schools that offer the training and accessibility into the companies that produce the repertory that utilizes these techniques. This is what one assumes Love means because, in fact, the practice of contemporary/modern and jazz dance within British concert and musical theatre is not "easier" and the perils faced by this particular group of dancers when studying classical ballet is also an issue when studying and performing contemporary and jazz dance. Though there are few in numbers across all dance styles the population of classically trained dancers of African and Asian descent in Britain is small. The lead dancer, Jhe Russell, trained in America with Theo Ndindwa and Vania Doutel Vaz from abroad studying in London, and the rest from Rambert School, Central School and Urdang.

Still, the question remains, why nineteenth century, romantic, impressionistic ballet as the aesthetic vehicle to tell an African tale? Classical ballets like "Giselle", "Swan Lake", and "The Sleeping Beauty" began the romantic era of classical ballet relating ethereal European themes about nature and the spirit world. This was also the time of powerful ballerinas who overshadowed their male counterparts, entrapping them with a variety of visions. So with "Awakening" the predictable story line twists this predilection by having a male lead but kept the supporting elements of fantasy and pantomime. But by making a nineteenth century-like ballet of an African tale Love’s motive seems admirable but has questionable political effect.

"Awakening" is a narrative ballet with eight scenes. There is the opening scene to set the environment of a gleeful African community and a loving husband, a death, the dream, remorse that conjures three female apparitions and the journey to the valley of the dead to confront three demons, the Matron of the Veil and Anansi the spider. There is reconciliation, the taking of a new wife, a wedding, a brief celebration, and at last a successful wedding night. The music was composed by Paul Gladstone Reid and admirably conducted by Clement Ishmael with set and costume design by Rosa Maggiora and lighting design by Philip Gladwell. The music, though, with its 19th century inspiration could not assist this dance burdened with such an elaborate narrative.

The movement vocabulary erred toward the repetitious, but was well executed, each dancer illustrating a good foundation in classical ballet though some of the solos lacked modulation in dynamics. Jhe Russell was dashing as the husband, Adom and the ensemble of dancers rehearsed and polished. The spacing varied between symmetry and asymmetrical groupings with costumes and props adding African accents and facilitating the fantasy element of the story. A few choices were questionable; dyeing of shoes for skin tone but some of the ladies briefs were not, and the use of silk drawn from stage right to stage left to create a river or veil(?) is an over used metaphor seen so often in dance productions that it has lost its power to enthral; and, the less than three minute section of the celebration that seemed a hybrid of social and classical dance moves that was to brief to warrant the drop that flew in and out so fast one didn’t have time to register its impact.

Classical ballet is lines and linearity and has more of an affinity with design not emotion. The curve or distortion of line more easily portrays emotion. Pantomime to tell the story is useful to assist in the story telling because the line of an arabesque or grand jeté in itself does not express emotion unless the dancer is directed to do so. The temperament of the dancer is where the emotion lies, and what he or she brings to line, gesture, and the transition from move to move. Love’s dancers are young so their skill for adding emotional depth to line is just beginning. In Love’s ballet their pantomime skills were basic, at times superficial or unfulfilled. The technical skill was good but the choreography kept simplistic as if selfconscious of its ability to attain the goals it so readily set for itself. Overall, the dancers’ potential was sound so there is proof of their artistry. Hopefully, it is this potential that will be seen and with Push 2004 establishing mainstream relationships these dancers might be considered and employed by Royal Opera House or English National Opera or some other British mainstream classical ballet company in the future.

If the point of Push 2004 is accessibility then it is a question of movement language and that language being able to deliver the message of a story to a community -- a story that the community does not own nor as a majority subscribe to. If the community being addressed does not understand the movement language how will they understand the story? Bushell-Mingo did speak of education work being an important strategy in the efforts of push presentations reaching their target audiences from the African/African Caribbean, Asian, and Disabled communities. But opera and ballet are tough sales for these communities. In the end the whole event seemed so incredibly desperate that these exceedingly skilled artists should find it necessary in 2004 to set out to prove yet again that artistry has no colour.

Why prove your capability, the tenacity and efficacy of your skill in a tradition that in 2004 continues its legacy by fortifying itself with “neo” and contemporary innovations but whose stock and trade is an endless array of reconstructions and revivals? This is what it is to be a European classical genre. To have a body of work enforced with several schools of technique underpinning choreography, music, libretto, and design that are everlasting, essentially perfect, moving, and provocative and its dancers, legendary.

Faced with this reality, what is the impact of "Awakening"? "Awakening" was billed as the first Black British Classical Ballet. If the only observable “Black” element was the Ghanaian tale, African fabric and a short hybrid section, what distinguishes it, where is its identity? If its classical merits are of substantial quality then its alluring notable characterisation is the colour of skin. This distinction has contradictory implications; a source of pride for “Black” communities but also the very element used to exclude, establish difference and objectify its artists. Caught in a state of proving integrity "Awakening" seemed more an imitation when perhaps if given different choices and a revised vision it could have presented more than just a rendition of what has already been done.

Edited by Jeff.

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