Author Archives: Joelson Gusson

Jo Fong: An Invitation

Jo Fong - An InvitationWhat could affect and transform a performance? I wouldn’t usually start a critique with a question – after all, it places the reader in an uncomfortable situation where, rather than passively contemplate what the critic has to say, she or he is required to have an opinion, or at least think about it. But in this case, I begin this review by asking: What could affect and even transform a performance –while it occurs?

In a traditional performance, whatever the artist has pre-decided will happen – the thoroughly rehearsed score – and almost nothing can affect that score directly. This does not happen in An Invitation. Instead, the artist – director, choreographer and dancer Jo Fong – and her collaborators challenge the usual presumption of a passive audience, and the performance is no longer something to be shown, turning instead into something to be shared. An Invitation is exactly that: an invitation to the public to be there; alive and sharing that time with the artists in the present moment, each to the same extent.

This isn’t a completely new idea. But what differentiates An Invitation from other work that challenges audience passivity is first the willingness of the three performers to be absolutely present and predisposed to receive the provocations that the public bring to the performance; and secondly, the delicacy of the choreographic construction that allows the real possibility for audience interventions at any moment of the show, without breaking the flow of any moment.

Jo Fong has 25 years of experience performing with DV8 Physical Theatre, Rosas, and Rambert Dance Company. She has also worked with Nigel Charnock and Wendy Houston, and performs with Manchester-based Quarantine. An Invitation is part of Yong’s research programme The Audience – an ongoing investigation into the role of the audience in live performance.

This work and its simplicity should be appreciated not only for itself, but also because it proves that a show does not just happen on the stage, but in the intersection between what is shown and what the audience experiences– alive and evolving. Transformative.


Peter McMaster: Wuthering Heights

Wuthering-Heights-Photo-Niall-WalkerOne of the greatest qualities in a performer is the ability to laugh at himself, exposing himself to ridicule – to dive completely into the work to be done not caring about stereotypes or judgments.

This is also one of the greatest qualities of Wuthering Heights, in which Peter McMaster stages this iconic novel using four male performers (the director himself plus Gary Gardiner, Nick Anderson, and Murray Wason), telling us the story through the eyes of four of its characters: Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Nelly Dean (the Earnshaw’s servant, and main narrator of the Bronte original), and Heathcliff’s horse.

Near the beginning of the show we are presented with a hilarious choreography for Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, which immediately transports us to the universe of these characters, as seen by the performers. And this is what seems to be the soul of this play: a rich and unpretentious way of retelling this iconic novel, accompanied by an innate sense of humour in both the direction and the performance.

This piece brings to the theatrical world onstage our experience of the virtual world – an eclectic mix of impressions where nothing is sacred, everything is up for interpretation. The novel and its core story are reinvented every minute; a scenically strong and idiosyncratically realised interpretation.

The aesthetic choices, whether dramaturgical, visual or aural, gain strength through utter simplicity: for example, in the pose that instantly transforms the actor to a horse. The shabby dresses of the ‘female’ characters are delightful. And gluing together all these choices is the soundtrack, exclusively using the songs of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights LP, which is not only consistent with the postmodern pot-pourri mode of creation, and the company’s appreciation of kitsch, but undoubtedly a good bet given the Kate Bush hysteria sweeping the country in the light of her imminent live performances.

Wuthering Heights is, without any question, one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2014 Fringe.

Curious Seed - Chalk About - Photo Tuur Uyttenhove

Curious Seed: Chalk About

Curious Seed - Chalk About - Photo Tuur UyttenhoveVinicius de Moraes, poet, musician and Brazilian diplomat, said in one of his songs that ‘when we really love we can see the child in our partner’ and it seems to me that this phrase summarises what happens when you watch Chalk About. You are hit by a wave of love so intense that you dive head-first into the universe of the young child, with all its sweetness, freedom and cruelty. This play, originally created by Christine Devaney and Leandro Kees, and here staged/performed by Devaney with Hendrik Lebon, has the power to transform us into kids again for a brief instant, and without a hint of anything patronising.

Using the stage floor like a huge blackboard, the performers – both excellent dancers and actors – start the show by creating a series of drawings in chalk, drawing the contours of their own bodies and other shapes. This alone is enough to pull us into the central idea of this work, which seems to me to be able to present concepts to children which are often taken as possible only in the world of adults.

The performers then make a list of everything that kids want to see in a show – dinosaurs, severed heads, violence, blood, Harry Potter, the Queen on a horse, etc. – And all that they do not want to see – love stories, kisses, art, fairy tales, etc. In an amazing sequence of quick movements that combine choreography and pantomime they present all the elements that kids want to see all at once, leaving us exhilarated and making us laugh out loud.

But soon we realise that this is a means to introduce us to the second part of the piece, where we will be surprised with what children supposedly would not like to see. And therein lies the magic of this piece, which manages to talk to children about life, the world, love, pain, and all those other concepts that seem to belong to the adult world.

The beauty of the construction and the manipulation of objects is absolutely touching and sweet, and what makes it all much more profound and powerful is the choice of not using any colour. Everything is white; everything is like a slate that can be scribbled and painted by the child’s imagination.

This piece is on that rare list of works in which we leave the theatre grateful that someone has created it. Citing another Brazilian artist (Jo Soares) ‘what we do not invent, does not exist.’ Thankfully, Christine Devaney and Leandro Kees invented Chalk About.

Belarus Free Theatre: merry christmas, Ms Meadows

Belarus Free Theatre - merry christmas Ms MeadowsMerry christmas, Ms Meadows is like a gift. Something beautifully wrapped and full of surprises – we have no idea what it is until we open it, at which point we are filled with surprise, joy, and deep amazement.

The play, built through real stories collected around the world, confronts us with absurd situations of extreme violence, physical and psychological; situations where prejudice is just the varnish that is used purposely to conceal the depth of these issues.

The inspiration for the piece was the story of Lucy Meadows, a Lancashire schoolteacher undergoing gender reassignment. She finished the Christmas term as Mr Upton and returned in the New Year as Ms Meadows, with the full support of the school. Sensationalist reports of the story were run in the tabloids, and a few months later, Lucy Meadows was dead.

The issues that drive this work – identity, gender and sexuality, often avoided or ridiculed – are treated flawlessly, without moralising judgements. The maturity with which the piece is built tackles this taboo subject directly with no room for subjectivity, working on concrete facts and granting the viewer the power to reflect and judge.

Through a well-linked sequence of scenes that are not intended to tell a linear story, this drama confronts us with moments in the lives of ordinary people who, because they are a little different to what their society would expect of them, are often exposed to situations unbearably embarrassing, hurtful – and in some cases, leading them, like Lucy Meadows, to take their own lives in despair.

The physical engagement of actors, their pulsating performances, and even a kind of heightened overacting, contribute to building a fast-paced and dynamic show which reaches out to the viewer almost aggressively. These dramaturgical choices contribute to a certain sense of audience discomfort, which seems absolutely legitimate – after all, one cannot passively watch a play like this.

Merry christmas, Ms Meadows is also a clear denunciation of the violence that so many people are subjected to. It is an extremely courageous work; an extremely beautiful show for an extremely violent world.

Tanztheater Wuppertal: Sweet Mambo

The penultimate piece created by Pina Bausch, who died in 2009, Sweet Mambo, like most of the choreographer’s work, continues in the company’s repertoire, living on after the demise of its creator. This is due to the dedication of the entire company and its artists, many of whom have worked together for decades, as well as to the efforts of the Pina Bausch Foundation.

Even after such a long time, and despite the absence of the choreographer, it is easy to see how proud the performers are to be part of this work, and their dedication to keep true to its utter essence. In my view, the video recordings of the great works by choreographers such as Bausch are useless (other than serving as documentation). Nothing can compare to the power of the experience of watching a show like Sweet Mambo.

What is most striking in the work of Pina Bausch is the sharpness with which her multi-dimensional creations are produced: how they are orchestrated in their various spatial vectors (vertical and horizontal) and within time; the use of sound; and a sense of drama that transcends the boundaries of tragic and comic.

Like other works of Bausch, Sweet Mambo is infused with sensuality, beauty and striking images that only a creator in the highest degree of maturity, accompanied by interpreters of the same calibre, can conceive. From details like the use of the singular voice of Nazareth Panadero, or the dazzling dresses created by Marion Cito, and the evanescent set design by Peter Pabst, this work captures and impacts us in every minute.

Sweet Mambo has only nine performers, a small number compared to the other works of Bausch post Cafe Muller (1978), yet it is fully loaded with the concept that permeates all her works: the longing for love.

There is no telling to be done about the choreographic construction of this piece, as in so many other of Bausch’s works. Her impeccable signature combined with a fine tuning between performers and creator means that nothing less than the best of each is placed on stage.

The aesthetic revolution undertaken by Pina Bausch since 1973, when she took over the artistic direction of the Tanztheater Wuppertal – is something extraordinary and undeniable.

Despite all this, and despite a certain feeling of ecstasy described by some viewers following the presentation of Sweet Mambo, I dare to say something that perhaps pervades the whole of Bausch’s work: the virtuosity in the use of all elements in a kind of Gesamtkunstverk (the German Romantic concept of a ‘total work of art’) turns this show into a work without risk, which somehow impoverishes it before the current global socio-political scenario.

Perhaps the world is moving on – but it is a joy to have the works of Bausch still here with us.