Saying Goodbye, part two

Saying goodbye to London means saying goodbye to our favourite dance company, Tempered Body Dance Theatre. We were able to go to one last “Cha-Cha-Cha”, an evening of scratch performances by three companies, including Tempered Body, at Chisenhale Dance Studio. We got to see more of Tempered Body’s new piece “Stand-By”, an exploration of physical and emotional dependency.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

“As active or non-active feminists of the 21st Century we are taught to be independent. Dependence on other people is accepted as weak and lacking courage. Same too with dependence on substances. Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” Maddy Wynne-Jones on “Stand-By”

The show premiers in June, after we’ve gone. It has been a privilege to watch these dancers at work, a thrill to watch Maddy creating this piece.

Saying goodbye to London means saying goodbye to the West End, so we decided to splurge on a couple of shows. Trying to decide which shows to go to has been hard. As Sondheim fanatics, Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton was an obvious choice – I had seen the original production on Broadway and this was every bit as wonderful. Michael Ball was a sympathetic and socially conscious Sweeney. Imelda Staunton was funny, sexy and brilliant.

Globe to Globe, part of the Shakespeare World Festival, was also something we wanted to see. 40 plays from 40 countries. We could only see one – the Palestinian production of Richard 2. Funny, angry, provocative. We met up with fellow Ottawan Jessica Ruano after the show, stopping for a drink to talk about art, politics and how to produce theatre that matters. It was hard to walk away from the other 39 shows…

The musical hit of the West End is Matilda, winner of 7 Olivier Awards. It is riotously outrageous, with the wickedly funny Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. I am in the business of working with children on stage, and I know what they are capable of. But I was floored by these young performers. A fabulous show, and an amazing adaptation of the book by Roald Dahl. Jaw dropping design. Rude, irreverent. What’s not to love about a show that has the biggest belch that ever existed?

We also went to listen to the brilliant playwright Michael Frayn who has two shows on in London: “Noises Off”, the toast of the town, which we saw (Celia Imrie as Dotty!) and could hardly breathe for laughing; and “Here”, which we didn’t get to see, much to our regret. He is also launching a new book, Skios, a blend of farce, satire and romance. Is there anyone who has such a variety of approaches in their work?

We made a dash out this week to see the amazing Bauhaus show at the Barbican. The Bauhaus school was a 14-year exploration of the arts that that changed the way we see things. When it was closed down by the Nazis, proponents of the movement fled to other countries and their design ideas spread throughout the world. I had been very affected by Bauhaus design and philosophy in my youth and it was incredibly inspiring to see the work assembled and thoughtfully chronicled.

Tim making notes at the Barbican

But the hardest thing right now is having to say good bye to family. It means tears and laughter, and last suppers. This week, Maddy made an amazing dinner for Peta, Bryan, Jo and Amanda. It was her “thank you” to them for putting us up (putting up with us). She created a meal of 4 courses, each dedicated to a country that we had stayed in for at least a week.

Starters (Spain) we had: Spanish Chorizo sausage sautéed with butter beans and shrimp on a bed of lettuce.

Mains (England): Individual Beef Wellingtons, garlic mash, roasted squash, green beans with almonds, mushrooms sauce and gravy sauce.

Dessert (France): Prune Clafoutis with custard.

Afters (Italy): Italian dessert wine (brought from our time in La Spezia) with cardamom biscotti.

It was an amazing feast, a fabulous and noisy night with family. It is impossible to think that we will be leaving, heartbreaking to try and say goodbye.

Maddy, Amanda, Jo, Bryan, Peta, Amanda & Tim at the farewell feast

Feasting on the arts in London

It was a bit of a jolt to come back into the press of people in London after our calm days in Devon. But we had several major events to look forward to, and we dove in, hearts first.

David Hockney has taken London by storm, and tickets for the show at the Royal Academy were being scalped at outrageous prices. Thankfully, we had booked our tickets before we left for Devon, and it was one of the first places that we headed when we got back.

Winter Timber. The painting takes up a whole wall of the gallery.

A Bigger Picture is one of the most vibrant shows I have ever seen. Hockney attacks landscapes. He spends years working on the same view at different seasons, different weathers. His colours are like no one else’s. When this show opened in February, Londoners flocked to it as to a vacation in the sun. You are viserally hit with almost impossible colour juxtapositions. And these pictures are huge. Really, really huge. He does full wall landscapes using grid sections, so that he can paint each section almost life size.

In one room, he displays a series of 51 framed prints of work that he did on an iPad. I hadn’t expected to like these, but I found them totally compelling. The way he uses the iPad is revolutionary. It is a medium that allows him to “work rapidly with a stylus to capture the changing light and conditions of a scene. The effect is significantly different to that achieved with a brush in other mediums.”

Hockney iPad art.

The 51 iPad prints record the transition from winter through to late spring on one small road. The work culminates in “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011”, a 32 canvas painting that takes over a huge wall of the gallery. “The deliberate sense of theatricality in this gallery reflects Hockney’s many decades of experience designing sets for the opera: the view is placed centre-stage with the drama of the approaching spring played out on all sides.” (copy from the program) I guess it is no wonder that I loved it.

From landscapes we went to portraits. The Lucien Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery changed our focus from the changing colours of landscape to the changing minutiae of skin tone — small brush manipulations that reflect a complex life. “I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories.” Lucien Freud.

Freud self portrait 1985

These are stories that you dig deeply into. Like our layers of skin, and the layering of our experiences, the paintings pull your eyes through layers of paint to reveal the soul within. These are raw portraits, reminding me of how little we really know of people, of how hard it is to go beneath the layers.

From visuals to sound. I was desperate for complex sounds to wash through me. I wanted to hear music that was as full of contrasting colours as the Hockney show, as personal as the Lucien Freud. It didn’t take long to find a perfect concert. Chick Corea and Gary Burton on their “Hot House” tour. Two brilliant, percussive artists who have been playing together for over 40 years. They come together almost as one. Chick Corea on piano and Gary Burton on vibes, they played a range that included original pieces, Miles, Dizzy, Monk, Mozart, Bartok, Antonio Carlos Joabim and Lennon & McCartney. These are musicians at the top of their game, playing, having fun and sharing that fun with an audience. And because it was so percussive, the sound came into my body just as the light vibrations from the Hockney paintings had.

From sound to words and thought. Lucy Prebble is a young and successful British playwright. She wrote, amongst other things, Enron, about the financial scandal of 2001. “It’s always useful to remember that free market economics – capitalism if you prefer – brought us the slave trade, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, as well as more recent events such as the near meltdown of the entire global financial system.” (from the London Theatre review of Enron.) Enron was a big hit on the West End and a magnificent failure on Broadway. “I think Americans don’t like ambiguity,” said Lucy. She gave an entertaining and engaging talk at the Haymarket Theatre as a part of their Masterclass Series. She prefaced the talk by saying that anything that she said about her past was, like all memory, a “retrospective rationalization”. In other words, we all make up our lives as we chose to tell them. Her talk was personal, honest and revealing, much like the Freud portraits. It is good to know that all artists are just working from one project to the next, trying to grow, to find ways of challenging themselves, and sometimes just trying to survive.

From words to movement. One of the most exciting young London dance artists is Maddy Wynne-Jones. While I might have a personal bias, I have to say that it has been a huge thrill to watch Maddy’s work evolve, even in the short time we’ve been here. We went to a scratch performance (a work-in-progress performance that encourages dialogue and discussion) of the new Tempered Body Dance Theatre piece under development. “Stand-By” is a piece about dependency. On people, on substances. It asks the questions, “Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” The scratch performance featured about 15 minutes of the piece, and we were moved to tears by the work. Big gulping, shaking sobs. But also smiles of self-knowledge.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

I went to the studio this week to watch further rehearsals and was deeply impressed by the cohesiveness of the company, and by their open and generous exploration of these questions. They are dancers with amazing skill and integrity. Maddy’s choreography and direction guides them to movements that are honest and resonant. We’ll see another scratch performance next month. It is a privilege to watch this work in development.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal for Stand-By.

It is a constant river of inspiration here. Sometimes we need to stand outside, on the banks to catch our breath. But knowing that our time in London is limited, we are diving in as often as we can.

The Sound of Movement

Summer came to London last week. Tim left for Boston, to receive the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for his book “Blink and Caution”. I was in a mood to enjoy the rare hot English sunshine, so I packed a small picnic lunch and set out for Kingston-Upon-Thames.

The Bridge into Kingston-Upon-Thames

Kingston is about a 10-minute bus ride from Surbiton. It is a lovely market town and was, in the 9th and 10th centuries, the place where Kings were crowned. At least 7 different Saxon Kings were crowned there. Hence the name King’s Town.

In the centre of town there is a thriving market, with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, as well as a very good butcher, fish monger, cheese seller, a stall of olives and hot fresh pretzels. Last week Tim and I came to the market late in the day, when the sellers are practically giving things away, and we got the ingredients for a fabulous Roasted Sweet Potato and Fig Salad. I’ve included the recipe, because it was really unusual and very delicious. Back in Canada, figs are usually too expensive to consider for something like this, but we got 5 for £1 at the market.

The Market, ready for Xmas

On Friday the market was in chaos because there was a film shoot going on for a Christmas commercial. In the blazing summer sun the square was filled with film extras in winter hats and Christmas decorations.

The river, however, was not disturbed. There are walks all along the Thames, and they were filled with mothers with children, students, business people, retirees – everyone out enjoying the day, many clearly playing hooky. I went along to Canbury Gardens and sat on a bench under the dappled shade of a tree to eat my lunch, read my book and just generally watch the world go by.

Looking across the Thames

A few lazy canoes, kayaks and rowboats. A canal boat. A small motor boat. A tourist boat. Everything and everybody was moving slowly, gracefully. The swans glided by, occasionally rousing themselves to fly 50 yards up stream in the hopes of better eating. When swans fly they only barely rise out of the surface of the water, and they paddle their feet on the surface as though they are trying to get some traction from the water.

Swans flying along the river

Their feet make a great thwacking sound and, along the loud thumping of their wings, it is surprising how the sound of the movement of these ridiculously gorgeous birds is so noisy.

After my visit to Kingston I went into London to see the final performance of “Body of Work”, in which the sound of movement also plays a part.

Maddy in the tech rehearsal with the lighting designer

“Body of Work” explores body issues and body politics. It is a 60-minute piece with five dancers of very different body types. They work together and separately to question how we relate to our bodies. The music ranges from a kind of African drum base to synthetic scratching, but  one of the most striking sections uses the song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. A dancer breaks off to dance a fearful and passionate response to the song. The other four dancers each take a corner of the stage and begin to draw on themselves with lipstick. You realize that the drawings are marks for a plastic surgeon – a circle and an X on the thigh; a nip and tuck of the stomach. The question in the song becomes: “Do I have to change myself for you to still love me, tomorrow?”

Will You Still Love Me, Tomorrow?

In another section, the dancers draw “seams” along their legs and suddenly are on catwalks, striking the numb poses of fashion models. They break off, bind themselves in plaster gauze on sections of their body, and thrust themselves back to the catwalk. There are images of pre-natal life, of self-loathing, of longing and desire.

Sometimes the dancers appear as 5 individuals. Sometimes they seem to be different facets of one person, fighting to come to resolution. By the end of the piece the floor is littered in discarded clothes, bandages, water and mess, but the dancers are in smooth calm white dresses that resonate classicism. They move as a supportive and aware group. There is no sound but their breathing.

Observing the Artistic Process

On Thursday, we went to watch a Tempered Body Dance Theatre rehearsal. The company was rehearsing in a studio at the Chisenhale Dance Space, in East London, where our daughter Maddy is artist in residence. As we approached the converted warehouse we heard two people standing out on the third floor fire escape, rehearsing a Shakespearean scene. Clearly we were in the right part of town.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre is getting ready for their most ambitious show yet. “Body of Work” is a full-length piece that explores our complex relationship to our bodies, “the global epidemic of body unease”. On the day that we arrive, Maddy is putting the finishing touches onto one of the last sections of the piece. She explains that it is a technical, not a creative rehearsal. Which is why it is alright for us to watch.

There are 5 dancers in the piece, all of very different body types and energies. They are working through a complex part that involves a fluctuation between syncopated rhythms and tight unison precision. I love watching a dancer’s concentration. They use a shorthand of sounds to describe movements. A dancer listens and watches the choreographer’s direction and puts it into their body as they hear/see the movement. Weight shifts, muscle movements and small breath changes reflect their inner kinetic world, as they process the information.

Dancers are always working. Like an actor in a corner going over lines, they are always marking through passages to get the piece into their body memory. When they take a coffee break, they keep stretching and stay focused.

I find myself wishing that I could bring acting students into this room. It is all about the work. The concentration is thick. The honesty unhindered.

There was a marvelous moment after they had been working on a number of small bits. Maddy said she wanted to try the whole section, and did everyone remember it? There was a deep, concentrated silence for almost a full 2 minutes.  Each dancer went through the passage in place, small gestures, spine lifts and falls, no one saying a word and then they all simultaneously looked up and were ready to go. They danced the section full out, to music. The emotions opened. We cried.

After the rehearsal, and a good post mortem over coffee, we head out for curry in Brick Lane. A lovely late afternoon meal, we stuffed ourselves with flavours and smells and watched the Brick Lane world go by. Dance is art, food is art.

One of the purposes of this trip is to allow ourselves to be surprised. While we were at Chisenhale, we found a flyer for “The Proms”. “The Proms” is the World’s largest classical music festival, with 74 nights of performances in Royal Albert Hall, as well as performances in the parks, events, lectures and activities. Tim looked at that evening’s schedule. Prom 72 was an evening of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Ravel. Favourite pieces, played by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit. We called for tickets and got 2 that were just turned in. It was a sold-out evening.

Royal Albert Hall is huge and gorgeous. And filled with thousands of people. I felt overwhelmed by the fact that all of these people were here to see the symphony not because it was good for them, but because they love it. And they come night after night. This is a crowd of young and old, wealthy bankers and poor students. Aside from the thousands in the stalls and boxes, there are hundreds of people who pay the low rate of £5 for standing room. However, I am grateful for the great seats we have, as I am sure I wouldn’t see a thing in that press of people in front of the stage. And seeing is as important as hearing. The fabulous horn section, the 6 percussionists! But the violin soloist for the Tchaikovsky was the star of the night.

Janine Jansen is a gorgeous, tall woman who plays with a fire that focused the hearts of the thousands in Royal Albert Hall that night. Never in my life have I enjoyed orchestral music this much. The piece was originally deemed unplayable. Written by Tchaikovsky for his male lover at a time when this was definitely not acceptable, the concerto is filled with a mixture of pain, desire and joy. Janine Jansen seemed possessed by the spirit of Tchaikovsky and channeled passion through her body and into the violin. She and the music were physically one and the same. It was miraculous.

It was a day of body, mind and heart.