Saturday, 12 November 2011

Bill T Jones is a Good Man

Seeing Rambert Dance Company and a documentary about Bill T Jones in one night is a tough call. The slight dissatisfaction I felt after Rambert became a raging resentment once I’d watched A Good Man. There’s nothing wrong with Rambert, apart from the strange dishonesty that has a company made up mostly of ballet dancers still avoid the word in their name. The triple bill is a little weak – the final piece seems to have an oddly outdated notion of childhood, despite the company having an in-house scientist to help with child psychology – but they get their legs and the acrobatics tight. But in the light of Bill T Jones, caught in the process of choreographing a commission about Abraham Lincoln, they come across as the polite and slightly boring kid at the big wild party.

Jones is an anachronism: he is in that very American mode of the artist who wants to make a big statement. At one point he stands in the middle of his dancers, stripped to the waist, apologising for his earlier anger in the same way that a Glaswegian hard-man argues over the latest increase in the bus fare. He’s a determined modernist, a romantic, striving like Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, all those tough guys who dare audiences to call them sissies for being sensitive.

So, he is even a stereotype. Luckily, he addresses this: admitting that he has faith in art, faith in the great man, he surprises himself. He knows that he is arrogant – he moans at one point that he doesn’t want to be a saint – but his physical excellence lends him a charisma that his temper doesn’t deserve. And he is certainly all man, all power. The end of the film sees him going mad for the biggest sound he can get out of the musician, before being told that he would need to warn an audience about the volume in case someone has a heart-attack.
But by God, he’s exciting. Apart from one scene, when the company perform some ritual before going on stage, there’s no sentimentality, no special pleading. Listening to Jones find the hidden racism in the Great Emancipator’s speeches is thrillingly taboo: his arguments with the musicians and dancers reveal the passion that binds them in this difficult relationship. Best of all, the look of fear on his audience’s faces. I may be unkind, but that will teach them to think a night at the dance is the emotional equivalent of a champagne picnic.
The more I think about that documentary, the deeper it gets. It reminds that dance is the most appropriate art for philosophical discussion: what other performance could explore Lincoln without turning it all history detail or windy rhetoric? Where else can the personal and the political mesh so elegantly, as when Jones uses the lives of his dancers to reflect on the USA’s horrible domestic history? And there, at the centre, Jones himself. Battling age, inspiration, expectation. He mocks those who commissioned him for tokenism, then moans that audiences are lazy. He is picture book perfect.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Glass in your Face

An entire weekend of Philip Glass is a daunting prospect. It might be his 75th anniversary, but Glass’ minimalism has a habit of repeating itself. Interludes from Bang on a Can notwithstanding, the decision to book The Smith Quartet for all five string quartets, The Scottish Ensemble for his American Seasons and the mighty Red Note for 1000 Airplanes on the Roof looked like overkill.

Fortunately, there is more diversity than a casual glance would reveal. The quartets are a revelation: Glass has an ear for a melody – something that in rare within minimalism, which tends to either prize the dynamic or experimental – and The Smith Quartet emphasis the emotional range across and within the quartets. Indeed, aside from a dull Two Pages, an early piece performed on the Sunday by BOAC which lacks the nuance of the more mature forays into repetition, Glass is revealed as a master of forms, using his distinctive trill as a motif throughout out his compositions rather than the expected trick.

One highlight is Red Note: Davis McKay's reading of the text is appropriately intense, while the orchestra, bolstered by some very 1980s’ sounding synthesizers, weave a murderous, space age magic around the story of a man who has either had a mystical revelation or gone insane. McKay might be on the verge of hysteria, but the key question – is his vision of an interconnected university madness or magic – is thrillingly left ambiguous. The video screens illustrate his adventures into inner and outer space and the soprano takes off into musical areas that recall Star Trek, utterly appropriately.

Bang On A Can, New York champions of new music, display their affinity with Glass at Tramway on Saturday: a selection of shorter work for a small ensemble reminds of Glass’ affinity with delicate textures. Their sessions of contemporary composition reveal, amongst African influenced pieces and clarinet heavy work-outs, that Thurston Moore is a composer capable of working free jazz and Velvet Underground influenced rock into something more satisfying than his increasingly predictable sessions within Sonic Youth.
The only disappointment is Eno’s Music for Airports: a good selection against 1000 Airplanes, it has been orchestrated by BOAC. Although the ensemble is tight – Red Note are pulled in, alongside the Scottish Youth Choir – Eno’s ambient albums were consciously created in the sterile atmosphere of the studio: a non-musician, his limitations are exposed in the concert hall. The vigour of live instruments meshes uncomfortably into Airport’s delicate shifts, leaving something neither chilled nor exciting. Since a similar problem occurred in the recent orchestration of his Apollo album, the difficulties seem to lie in the process itself: Eno may have shared musical interests, but he is far from a classical composer.

But Glass triumphs: BOAC have the right mix of classical technique and rock’n’roll irreverence: Red Note are always, as Nicholas Bone from Magnetic North affirmed when picking them to perform Pass the Spoon, the go-to ensemble for the cutting edge. And the finale on Saturday, Glass’ American response to The Four Seasons, was an emotional tour de force. The Scottish Ensemble kicked off that concert with a performance of Vivaldi’s ring-tone favourite that banished bad memories of Nigel Kennedy and suggested that it is part of the tradition that eventually flourished in the high romantic era. 

Days of Whining and Roses

My preference for dance over scripted theatre is most likely the result of choreography’s freedom to head of into the abstract. Notable exceptions, such as Beckett or the surrealists, only emphasise that scripted theatre, when called upon to analyse a serious matter, has a habit of blowing up into windy rhetoric or stylising the subject into an theatrical  archetype, that simultaneously lacks any sense of naturalism and fails to delve deeply.

Days of Wine and Roses is a case in point. As always, Kenny Miller directs and designs with panache, and both Keith Fleming and Sally Reid excel as the anti-heroic couple. Their age gap does remove some of the script’s bite – Fleming plays the line about meeting a young man for laughs, and while he seems to grow into the role as the action progresses, Reid is stuck in fresh youth. This makes her character’s alcoholism all the more tragic, but as naturalism is in such short supply across the production, it adds to the abstract moralising that infects Owen McCaffery’s new version.

Unlike previous productions from Theatre Jezebel, Days... has a very clear moral line: alcoholism is bad. That Fleming’s Donal receives a round of applause for his Alcoholics Anonymous confession, delivered directly to the audience, fits the tone of a story that Miller aptly stages as a series of tableaux, a modern morality play. Both actors rise to the occasion, giving life to the archetypes through subtle gestures of compassion or disgust. And it is well received: theatrically, it has all the ingredients of a good show.

The problem is in the intention. McCafferty follows the moral line, never questioning why alcohol could captivate poor Mona. The religious understanding of AA is crucial – insisting that alcoholism is an illness, not a social or psychological disorder, it abandons any attempt to understand whether there is any reason for it. Hints at Mona’s family life – teetotal parents – or the alienation of leaving home in Belfast for London are not enough to account for what appears to be a complete descent into degradation. Having demonstrated that alcoholism leads to family breakdown, Days... is content. It refuses to move the discussion forward.

This leaves me ambivalent about the production. On one level, it is a well made play, deserving of praise. It certainly made me respect Fleming and Reid, and look forward to seeing more of Miller’s productions. But something as dark as Days... can’t be classed as entertainment – the ending sees Donal return to a conflict scarred Belfast rather than stay in the same city as his alcoholic wife. And its lack of analysis leaves it short as a serious social contribution.

Add to this that it is well written, at least in terms of surface dialogue.

IMHO, the problem hits at the heart of “naturalism” within theatre. Miller does what he can to emphasise the abstract nature of the content, using self-conscious scene changes. The specific historical period – it covers the 1960s – militates against this becoming too universal (Miller’s one mistake is to date every scene precisely, grounding the action in a moment when a more fluid time scale would have strengthened the sense of a mythic narrative). Yet the script imitated natural speech: Donal’s soliloquy is framed as an AA confession, the couple’s arguments are convincingly brutal.

Unfortunately, the naturalism hampers McCafferty’s attempts to make moral points, since there is no sense that this situation is anything more than two people’s lives.  And refusing to explore the reasons behind the alcoholism undercuts the characterisation. The message and the style are at war, blunting each other. The play tries to make its point by making the characters recognisable, but balks at engaging fully with their personalities, lest they become unique and, consequently, less pliable for making Big Points.

I am broadly hostile to naturalism – hence my dance bias. Naturalism came in around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, championed by Ibsen and Strindberg. It was based on the idea that theatre ought to represent natural and recognisable characters and stories – no more mother-loving kings. It paralleled modernist innovations in the novel – Joyce was a naturalist, at least in content, and followed the lead of French authors.
Strindberg pretty quickly realised it would not work. By the end of his life, he was writing Dream Play. Theatre is naturally – hah – artificial. Much of the best theatre toys with its innate surrealism. Miller uses this to great effect. Rather than pretending that this is some kind of voyeuristic insight into a real event, the potential of theatre is unleashed when it recognises its own art. Unfortunately, naturalism hardened into “realism” – the version that sees the gritty as authentic. This disconnect with the actual nature of theatre reached its zenith with the Angry Young Men of the 1950s. It has also infected cinema.

Days of Wine and Roses is guilty of this. It imagines that showing the worst excesses of alcoholism, or at least implying that they are happening off-stage, that it is being authentic. Yet the characters have no depth, no nuance. They are symbols, both of alcoholism and the problems of a theatre that forgets its fundamental inauthenticity.