Sitting in the west moat of the Tower of London, members of an orchestra are preparing their instruments. Gongs, electric guitars and cellos rest beneath defensive stone walls. Nine vocalists deliver an acapella rendition of Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes, the last note of which is sustained. As it turns into a drone, bearskins emerge from further down the moat and the Band of Irish guards approach. Reaching the stage, their music collides with the drone: dissonance rings through the crowd as the two sounds fight for equilibrium. The music stabilises as the Irish Guards manoeuvre around the stage and from behind them, a body tumbles forwards, in a deep orange robe, as if caught up underneath the stampede of the band’s feet and music, lying motionless until the stage is clear for him to begin.
The music in this collaborative dance piece, directed by Hofesh Shechter, is as equally important as the choreography. Both elements support one another and in the first ten minutes, the tone is set and the language of the piece emerges before we even encounter any dancers. This incorporation of music is typical of Shechter’s work, yet what is impressive about East Wall is how this music-led approach is consistent throughout the performance, considering that the six dance sections of the show have each been created under the care of a different choreographer: Becky Namgauds, Duwane Taylor, James Finnemore and Joseph Toonga, with Shechter choreographing the last two.
On top of that, each set of choreography is performed by a different East London dance group. Some of the dance groups are more youth-oriented than others, and the level of skill and experience varies, yet their relationship with, and embodiment of, the music is consistent throughout, allowing the diversity of different bodies, skill-sets, and backgrounds on stage to mesh together, acting as a perfect articulation of East Wall’s celebration of East London.
The piece makes use of an excess of 150 performers, all of whom are present for the finale. The diversity of London is on show – performing at the Tower of London is successful not only as an aesthetic aspect of the performance, but puts the performing groups, such as Just Us Collective and Cando2 Dance Company, into as much of a visible position as possible. The majority of the choreography is a hip-hop and contemporary dance hybrid, broken down and reformed by earthy, staccato, drumming rhythms; each choreographer bringing their own spin on this into each section, representing the best Tower Hamlets has to offer.
Although overall it is a celebration of the borough, the piece unpicks some of the grizzlier parts of
the city’s history. The piece uses violence and combat as a structural device: the Irish Guards’ music clashes with the drone at the start; midway through, One Youth Dance and University of East London Dance Collective deliver a militarily on-time, Haka-like, war dance; towards the end, Shechter’s young company, Shechter II, continuously murder one another like animals. The violence is repeated throughout, yet the cast of the piece emerges unscathed and united in jubilation.
East Wall is a cascade of roots and origin that is dynamic in its style and masterfully solid in all aspects of its execution. An appropriate finale for LIFT festival, it is an important attempt at soothing tensions around the persistence of violence in our history, and celebrates London’s ability to diversify and adapt through strife and anguish.
Featured image (top): East Wall at the Tower of London. Photo Victor Frankowski