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Dance Umbrella 2006

The Cholmondeleys and Featherstonehaughs with the Yum Yum Band


by Ramsay Burt

November 3, 2006 -- Sadler's Wells, London

For me, “Yippeee!!!” shows Lea Anderson at the top of her form, creating a densely layered, highly theatrical spectacle that is witty and entertaining with a darkly disturbing underside. Steve Blake's music, Simon Vincenzi's costumes, Simon Corder's set and the Cholmondeleys and Featherstonehaughs's dancing combine to generate weirdly fascinating effects that suggest strange, hybrid, mutating images -- the insect-like movement in previous shows seems to be giving way to that of microbes, viruses, and similar micro-denizens engaged in procreation and contamination.

And that is, of course, what Anderson does to traditional notions of contemporary choreography. Fifty years ago, Doris Humphrey warned choreographers that “symmetry is lifeless”, and “two dimensional design is lifeless”, telling them also that, since “monotony is fatal”, they should “look for contrasts”, and above all that “all pieces are too long”.

The kind of choreography she considered valuable was, of course, the opposite of the kind of popular dancing found in Broadway and Hollywood musicals. “Yippeee!!!” takes as its principle starting point some of the extraordinary, early, abstract dance sequences created by Busby Berkeley that Humphrey no doubt considered to be the antithesis of her art.

In breaking Humphrey's rules, Anderson is of course in good company, though not necessarily with the kinds of figures some people might immediately associate her with. Sixties experimentalists like Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs, and more recent European choreographers like Pina Bausch, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and Jerome Bel have all made works that have shown that theatre dance can do much more than exemplify the kind of “liveliness” that Humphrey envisaged, or the kinds of emotional experiences that her generation of choreographers believed their choreography expressed. The best of Anderson's work shows this.

Despite Humphrey, symmetry can stop the action in a useful way that makes one appreciate the beauty of singular moments in the choreography -- like the Pekin Opera performers who freeze momentarily in the middle of a combat sequence to let us marvel at the sumptuously interlocking figures of their fight tableau. Whatever Humphrey may have believed, two-dimensional design can be fascinating. Anderson often creates signature moments where her dancers present movements directed frontally towards the audience while actually moving on a diagonal or sideways, a two dimensional effect that resembles the frieze-like movement in L'Apres midi d'un faune.

One of my favourite moments in “Yippeee!!!” does this. Four parallel lines of dancers, like walls of footballers protecting the goal mouth from a free kick, moved one behind the other as if on tracks. Each group of dancers was identically dressed and performed their own unison, frieze-like sequence, setting up fascinating resonances between one line and another. And as they performed, the ones at the back seemed to be competing for our attention over the heads of those in front. Their vacuous grins were made all the more disturbing by the fact that their smiles were literally dazzling, coming from metallic teeth fixed to gum shields.

They look mindlessly happy to be dancing for us. And of course on one level they no doubt were happy -- Anderson has some wonderful dancers who come back to work with her again and again like Maho Ihara, Ana Pons Carrera, and Gary Clarke, and there are some wonderful performances in “Yippeee!!!”

But on another level, their excessive smiles are obviously, deliberately artificial: they're self-consciously doing what they know is expected of this kind of spectacle -- and that is what Berkeley's chorines looked like on screen, though the moment the studio's cameras stopped rolling for the 100th consecutive take of the same short sequence, they sometimes collapsed, exhausted and demoralised. Anderson's dancers smile with a kind of ironic detachment that makes one think about Berkeley's chorines in a different, more honest way

The chorines were of course lucky to have any job at the height of the depression which followed the Wall Street Crash. But what had they to smile about in the early 1930s, and what have we to smile about at the moment? The title “Yippeee!!!” with its extra “E's” and its three exclamation marks seems bogusly and inappropriately cheerful in our current dark times, and it is precisely this sham quality that Anderson has skillfully perpetrated on the stage at Sadler's Wells.

The opening was a deliberate shambles, the stage awkwardly divided up into a “performance” area in the middle, cut off by horizontal walls of moveable disco lights from areas to each side where racks of Vincenzi's costumes stood ready for the dancers to change into. Behind this were Steve Blake and his fellow musicians, this time calling themselves the Yum Yum band.

While Gary Clarke was slowly sliding through an elegantly louche gestural sequence in the middle, one or two other dancers at the sides were looking for costumes while someone else was bent over practicing a bit of material we'd see in full later. They almost looked as if they were insufficiently rehearsed, but, functionally, this choreography announced this was not going to be simple and that we needed to concentrate.

Similarly, Blake's music sometimes sounded like rock n’ roll, but at other moments it was as if John Cage had joined them to make the electronic plinks and plonks he made while Cunningham's danced. Vincenzi's costumes played in hybrid spaces between Hollywood art deco and sci-fi inflected rubber fetishism. Despite their extravagance, the sequence of new and surprising costumes provided a rigorous and intelligent accompaniment to the metamorphoses and transmutations of Anderson choreography.

“Yippeee!!!'s” deliberateness lacks the kind of liveliness that Humphrey advocated, while its impersonality is totally in keeping with Anderson's Berkeley-derived spectacle of rigorously abstract pattern-making. Similarly, the lack of suitable contrasts is an integral part of the way the choreography recycles subtly mutating movement sequences. What some not very perceptive commentators have wrongly, in my view, called monotonous (sorry for the rant here), seems to me to generate a slow growing atmosphere that absorbs and pulls in the fascinated viewer.

There are, of course, those who want mindless entertainment that doesn't require any effort. The mistake some people make with Anderson's work is to assume that because it explores popular material, it should be easy, undemanding, and “accessible”. What makes “Yippeee!!!” the best British dance company piece I've seen so far this autumn is not just the clever way it combines elements stolen from popular entertainment, visual art, and experimental theatre, but that it does it with such skill and resonates with such diabolically perverse relish.

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