Review: Cindy Claes - Wild Card Dancehall Takeover - Lilian Baylis Studio

Performance: 13 & 14 February 2014
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Monday 24 February 2014

Wild Card - Dancehall Takeover. Cindy Claes, Andrea Queens & Natalie Baylie in 'Is My Whining Winding You Up?'. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Performance reviewed: 14 February

Cindy Claes’ Dancehall Takeover was the seventh show to date in Wild Card, a Sadler’s Wells initiative that gives young artists a chance to show work of their choice in the Lilian Baylis Studio and its immediate environs. Claes is a Belgian-born dance artist described by the evening’s expert and always articulate compere, Hakeem Onibudo, as a bona fide ‘go-getter.’ Although the UK has been her home base since 2005 this two-date gig seems to have been a dream-come true breakthrough. Inspired principally by Jamaican culture, the show provided me with half a great night out.

It kicked off with Dancehall Spirit , a short solo created and performed by the ace soloist Paradigmz. Cued to a soundtrack of infectious (and, for many in the audience, familiar) Jamaican pop songs and radio news broadcasts, this masterful display of embodied rhythm rightly earned him a standing ovation. The format of the piece was simple with the dancer shifting seamlessly between moves and costumes or accessories (a bright red sash, a hat and so on). Effortlessly sexy, entertaining and iconic, Paradigmz offered an object lesson in how to fill a space with skill and presence.

On his heels came a 27-minute excerpt from Claes’ full-length Is My Whining Winding You Up? I enjoyed this female trio last year at Laban Theatre (when I reviewed it for this website) but got an even bigger kick out of it in the extremely communal context of Dancehall Takeover. It’s a resolutely – and, most of the time, uproariously funny – feminist piece of dance-theatre that also happens to be very sharply danced in the dancehall style (bandy-legged, bottom-jiggling, hand-shaking jerkiness plus shimmying and the occasional pelvic grind). Motormouthed Andrea Queens, Natalie Baylie and Claes herself play three friends whose coffee klatsch continually explodes into often cartoon-like comic tangents. Much of the verbal but also highly physicalised material is based upon the notion of women’s tendency to define themselves via relationships with the males in their lives, be that a father, son or boyfriend.

What I found well-nigh irresistible is how well Claes and company – advocates of change who recognise equality and justice for women as a universal imperative – cloak their message in feel-good humour. I happily swallowed such a sweet pill, taking care not to choke on it as I laughed. Kudos to them, too, for their completely non-intimidating handling of some mild audience participation. I do have a single, tiny cavil: Claes’ upstage solo with a disposable coffee cup could perhaps be bigger both in the moves themselves and the space she covers. Sturdily-built, she dances with a joyful bounce that in this particular instance seemed was a mite contained. Even so, Is My Whining… amounts to a deserved populist hit. I can’t imagine how it plays out at greater length especially given how satisfying the truncated version is. To quote the chant the cast invites the audience to join them in hollering out, ‘Big up the girls!’

Claes set up Dancehall Theatre Exchange Collective (aka DTX) during her 2013-14 ADAD Trailblazer’s Fellowship. Apparently her intention is to use this new platform for professional development and support to establish creative links between the UK and Jamaica. Devised with Kingston-based Conray and Matthew Richards, aka Shady Squad, and presented as the second half of Dancehall Takeover, Life of a Shady seems to be the first fruits of this exchange.

This work-in-progress started out fairly juicily with five high-energy members of DTX juxtaposed against the caricatured elderly men played by the equally lean and wiry Richards duo. The premise seemed to be that these stiff, toothless and cane-using old codgers were once dancers themselves. At least that’s what I gleaned from the programme note after the fact. During the show itself I wasn’t so sure, largely because I could barely understand the words (heavy on Jamaican patois) to which the pair lip-synched from a recorded soundtrack. All I really picked up was that a confrontational generation gap was being played out – too loudly, and for too long – to a jukebox shuffle of music. In practice this meant that eventually the old-timers shed their aged behaviour and attendant props and waxed young and lively, just as they must’ve done in days of yore. Fair enough, particularly because both men are patently adept dancers. Ditto the DTX crew.

Ultimately, however, the air of self-indulgence hanging over this whole initially agreeable escapade got the better of it. A reference to ‘gangnam style’ only reinforced the notion that this collaboration had somehow lost the plot. What did a Korean-born fad have to do with Jamaican dancehall past or present, or honouring one’s cultural pioneers?

It’s a pity that some – but only some – of the enormous goodwill generated during the first half of the evening was dissipated due to tiresome incoherence. I’d still give Dancehall Takeover high marks for both effort and actual delivery, and that includes ‘H’ Patten’s acceptably rough but friendly multi-media installation and informal talk in the Khan Lecture Theatre during the interval. Despite reservations about what happened on the Baylis stage, I left the venue with a better, warmer understanding of a culture to which I’ve had relatively little exposure and looking forward to more from Claes in the future.

Photos: Camilla Greenwell

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.

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