Cindy Claes‘ Wild Card is a ‘Dancehall Takeover’ and is the first time that Dancehall as an artform has been presented within a dedicated night at a major dance space. Sadler’s Wells has presented traditionally street-based and club-grown dance forms before: Jonzi-D’s Breakin’ Convention has drawn big crowds for a number of years, hip-hop dance companies sell-out the main house, Flamenco has been appearing in theatres around the world for decades and has its own annual festival. Each of these art-forms was mostly created by people with little economic or political power in their own societies and with little access to the kind of institutional support given to Western theatre dance. Dancehall is still pretty much on the edges of the mainstream. I am curious about this process of theatre-ising: when a dance form created within the conventions and contexts of streets and clubs is placed within the contexts and codes of a theatre. Both have to undergo some kind of transformation. The work perhaps must change, but also the audience and their expectations of how they can and will interact with the dance also has to change. This was a night of preparing ground – of inviting a Dancehall-literate audience into the Lilian Baylis and of establishing a context for watching for an audience who haven’t been exposed to Dancehall: a night of establishing dancehall as an “art” rather than (or as well as) a social dance.
‘H’ Patten’s pre-show installation Spiritual and Corporeal Practices in Jamaican Dancehall introduces a historical and socio-political look at the role of dance and the body in Jamaican history. In the Kahn lecture theatre, he had installed a series of screens with video, mostly of people in clubs in Jamaica dancing, labelled the clips and placed them alongside photos of older Jamaican men and women in Revivalist clothes, linking Dancehall back to the history of African people in Jamaica and to religious and spiritual practices. Patten has written an accompanying text, and at one point, he himself sings and speaks and moves for the people in the crowded room, to invite them to making connections. I am thinking about the history of Europe and this continent’s relationship to the pelvis and sexuality. I am reading Patten’s words about “a challenge to the ruling power and to death”, by “‘affirm[ing] human power over death by the ability to generate life'”. I am also watching some footage of hyper-mobile women in really short shorts on film as they flex and shake and slap and step and wind there way across a dance floor. On screen this section is called something like, “solo women before the coupling section”. They are hypnotising. There seems to be more footage of the men performing short choreographed routines in unison and I recognise this thing from Salsa and Samba nights too. I wonder about this and about men, unison and togetherness. I want to know more and to think about all of this more.
Hakeem Onibudo, the compere, is an important figure. He charms us, he warms us up, he reminds us of tonight’s significance for both Sadler’s Wells and Dancehall. I am reminded of the traditions of the music hall and variety show. We, the audience were invited to stand up and dance to a few classics and I got all nostalgic about being a teenager in Stratford. I am filled with that little joy that comes from being being able to sing along. Hmm: outsider/insider. Two men in front of me leave very fast at this point. They practically run out of the room, leaving the only two empty seats in the house. No-one else really seems to notice, though, as they are too busy either singing along, or bemusedly joining in the dancing, or just sitting there and perhaps hoping all this audience activity ends soon. Or at least, this is what I imagine everyone else is thinking. I spend quite a bit of time tonight looking around at the audience. We are being addressed so directly that I also want to look around and see who else is here with me. I am not alone in a silent, dark auditorium. This performance is a group activity.
The first performance, Paradigmz’s The Dancehall Spirit, is also about context and establishing a tradition and a family line for Dancehall. I think of Tino Sehgal’s ‘Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century’, in which he performs references and quotations from some of the major choreographers of the 20th century. The Dancehall Spirit is also a history lesson delivered through a combination of small costume changes, music, audio, and Paradigmz’s own body. He embodies a linear narrative of the dance and the people of Jamaica, starting in West Africa, through the era of slavery, independence and moving to the present day. He dances the dances until he gets to Dancehall which he dances with the echoes of the other dances still in his body. He charts the changes in rhythm and tempo and focus through different social and political structures. He tells a story, a story for the people who do not know, but also a story to remind the people who are already dancing it that they, like all of us, are dancing a history too. I think of dance history and how easy it is to forget, but yet how history echoes in movement and bodies, even whilst the significance and purpose of the dance changes. I also think of reconstructing and remembering a narrative of a people, and the power inherent in that.
Cindy Claes herself dances into a spotlight in Is My Whining Winding You Up, between two of her female company members. The dancing is great, the connection between the dancers strong, and there is room in the choreography for these women be powerful individuals. It is clear that they know how to physically occupy this stage. But the story that holds it together feels thin and slightly ill-fitting. The three women are friends meeting in a cafe who talk and dance about their girl-chasing sons, their on-off boyfriends, their fathers and feminist dilemas. Is My Whining… references a physical theatre tradition of narrative and movement with a sitcom feel. I wondered how else they could deal with these subjects, perhaps burrowing down deeper into the potential political and narrative power of the performers and of dancehall itself.
The final performance of the evening is a collaboration between the London based DTX (Dancehall Theatre Exchange) collective and Jamaican brothers Conray and Matthew Richards of The Shady Squad. This work comes out of Claes’ Dance Backpacker work through which she has travelled the world working with and exchanging knowledge with other artists involved in Dancehall, Krumping and other forms. Life of a Shady was made in a very short time when the brothers arrived to London for the show. It follows loosely a dance-battle between the generations ending in respect and admiration, with the Shadies as the grandfathers from the home of Dancehall, and DTX as the at-first-doubtful and vaguely bullying youth. There are also clips shown from the new Jamaican Dancehall documentary It’s All About the Dancing, with footage and interviews from some of the influential artists and dancers and footage shot in Kingstown, Jamaica. It is pretty spectacular and fun and invites the Shady Squad to platform some of their moves, including jumping through each other with their long, skinny-muscly limbs. I would really like to see what could happen if the two groups had longer to work together to further explore some of the relationships between Jamaican dancehall and the people who are adopting it and dancing it outside of the country. I am also curious about the little hints and clips towards current Jamaican street culture and its influences upon the dances and dancers. This feels like a beginning.
Pre-show and interval installation: Spiritual and Corporeal practices in Jamaican Dancehall
Curated by ‘H’ Patten
The Dancehall Spirit
Choreography and Performance: Paradigmz
Is My Whining Winding You Up?
Cindy Claes productions
Choreographer and Director: Cindy Claes
Performers: Andrea Queens, Nataile Baylie, Cindy Claes
Life of a Shady
Collaboration: Shady Squad and DTX Collective
Director and Dramaturg: Cindy Claes
Choreography: Shady Squad (Conray Richards, Matthew Richards)
Performers: Shady Squad: Conray Richards, Matthew Richards; DTX Collective: Andrea Queens, Natalie Baylie Michela Di Felice, Junior (Sonny Nwachukwu), Fumy Opeyemi
Projection: Vybz Kartel “Peanut Shell”, CAB Concepts
A short extract from “It’s All About Dancing”, A Jamaican Dance-U-Mentary (Fine Gold Productions, Penalty Recordings)