Funky is not normally a word used to describe the cultural activities at the Royal Opera House. But that adjective encapsulates the essence of Firsts, a showcase of different performing talents, now in its seventh year. Funkiness is indeed what greeted spectators last week at the opening of the 2009 edition, once they had descended into the cheerful vaults of the Linbury Studio Theatre. Multitalented Matt Hennem interacted with the incoming public, by dancing among them with his gravity-defying, mesmerising crystal ball. His elegant, well-choreographed evolutions and improvisations set the tone for the rest of the evening, thus becoming the prelude to equally captivating displays of different skills and bravura. Gemma Palomar invited the audience to ponder on and appreciate silence, by contrasting everyday noises with silence-related maxims, while cavorting with unique mastery on a Chinese pole in Silence to Feel.
Similarly, in Threads, a short, frenzied solo on a claustrophobically limited platform, Keira Martin explored a mixture of personal memories and broader issues of social and spatial constraints through a well-woven and visually breathtaking combination of Irish dancing and physical theatre.
Dazzling and daring acrobatics with the Chinese pole were also the core feature of Dancing Like No One’s Watching, by and with Jon Young. The talented young performer, who boasts an intriguingly varied background, had viewers in stitches with his reading of an all-dancing, nerdy anti-hero inspired by the hit movie Napoleon Dynamite.
In Your Eyes, by and with Vera Tussing and Albert Quesada, the taxonomical-like investigation of the various parts that constitute a dance piece, set to music by J.S. Rafaeli, becomes the provocative and somewhat hilarious core of the performance — which reaches its final anti-climax when all the pieces come together. Quirky and humorous, Your Eyes paved the way to the final explosion of performative quirkiness, Longwinded in Five Parts, namely a trio based on both the manipulation and other sound-making uses of inflated balloons. Engaging with a structure that seems to have been created by a party balloon-artist gone totally crazy, the piece, performed by Dot Howard, Michael Ridge and Holly Humble, is bemusing, satirical and irritating — especially if like me you cannot stand the sound of squeezed balloons.
Unfortunately, the theatrical immediacy and the sheer amount of vibrant entertainment in each piece, and in the last one in particular, is not something that can be effectively evoked by written words. The breathtaking suspensions and falls of both Gemma Palomar and Jon Young, the building tension of Keira Martin, the game of projected shadows in Your Eyes and, above all, the five sections of the balloon-based trio need to be experienced in person to be fully appreciated.
Luckily, the 2009 edition of Firsts continues throughout this week. Although the works presented will not be the ones reviewed here, it is more than likely that they will be as explosively funky and intriguing. If you feel adventurous and in need of something different, do not miss it. And do not rush away at the end, but find some time to enjoy the live music in the foyer. The night I went, this was enjoyably provided by the Coal Porters.
Earlier last week another significant event, the two-week-long Svapnagata Festival of Indian music and dance, kicked off at Sadler’s Wells. But the eagerly awaited première of Akram Khan’s Gnosis did not take place as scheduled. An accident that occurred during a rehearsal prevented Khan from completing the work, which should have been a fitting example of intercultural performance encompassing diverse traditions, narratives and techniques. Khan himself announced the change of programme on stage, after having performed the first section of the new work, the one based on Kathak. The performance, therefore, became, in Khan’s own words, a Kathak ‘jam session’. Khan has a unique charisma, and knows how to captivate his viewers. No one seemed to be particularly affected by the change in the programme, which he announced himself. Both his dancing and his talking hypnotised the audience, who responded, at the end of the 50-minute-long performance, with a standing ovation. From the little that was shown, namely two Kathak sequences — Polaroid Feet and Tarana — and an excerpt from the work’s finale, Gnosis is something not to be missed when it is finally completed and performed in April.
Aided by the equally charismatic presence of the Japanese artist Yoshie Sunahata, who plays the taiko drum and sings with a heavenly voice, Khan launched himself into a movement sequence that, moving on from traces of the Kathak tradition, soon became a choreographic equivalent of serial music. The transformation from one artistic idiom to another lasted only a few instants, but was enough to make the whole evening worth attending.