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Plays

Josephine and I

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Josephine Baker a captivating performer, political activist and international icon, who lived from 1906 to 1975, is brought vividly back to life in this startling debut play from Cush Jumbo.From the ragtime rhythms of St Louis and the intoxicating sounds of 1920s Paris, to present-day London, Josephine and I intertwines the story of a modern-day girl with that of one of the greatest, yet largely forgotten, stars of the twentieth century.

Of the play, the Sunday Times wrote: ‘a short show that, in the best possible sense, leaves you longing for more: more knowledge of its fascinating muse, Josephine Baker; more great parts for its jaw-droppingly talented author and star, Cush Jumbo. but also more time to discuss afterwards the serious points it raises about race and gender, today and in Baker's lifetime . . . a brave, exhilarating 100 minutes that redefine Josephine as less flapper, more rights-fighter, and pose important questions about her legacy.'

Josephine and I centres on the legendary American entertainer and her impact on a contemporary young woman.

In the original production, live music combined with dance to bring to life the contemporary legacy of a woman Ernest Hemingway described as "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw, and ever will." It premiered at The Bush Theatre, London on 12 July 2013.

Lives of the Great Poisoners

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Lives of the Great Poisoners is a multidisciplinary theatre piece with elements of text, dance and song on the theme of history’s most infamous poisoners. Caryl Churchill collaborated on its creation with composer Orlando Gough and choreographer Ian Spink. It was first performed at the Arnolfini, Bristol, on 13 February 1991 in a production by Second Stride, the performance collective co-founded by Ian Spink, Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston.

The play has three parts, each featuring an infamous poisoner: Dr Crippen, who was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora; Medea, the mythical figure who killed her ex-husband Jason’s new wife with poisoned robes; and Madame de Brinvilliers, the notorious seventeenth-century poisoner who learnt the tricks of the trade from her lover. The three stories are linked together by the figure of Midgley, an American inventor and industrial chemist.

The piece requires nine performers: four dancers, three singers, one singer/actor and one actor. Many of the scenes in the play take place between performers of different disciplines: a singer and a dancer, for instance, or an actor and a singer. The music and the text were written first and formed the backbone for the choreography, which grew out of improvisational work in rehearsal. The dance interludes were then woven into the existing text.

The Second Stride production at the Arnolfini in 1991 was directed by James Macdonald and designed by Antony McDonald with choreography by Ian Spink.

Melody Loses Her Mojo

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Melody is in the care system and is out of control . . . the only thing that is constant in Melody’s life is her toy monster, Mojo. Blessing has come from Nigeria to stay with an ‘Aunty’, but when the relationship breaks down, she is trapped in the care system and longs to be back with her Nana in Lagos. Rizla has just left the care system. He has been taken in by some older guys in the local hostel and has found his new ‘family’.

Melody Loses Her Mojo is a bold, gritty and challenging story aimed at young people. It fuses Hip-hop theatre, dance, puppetry and street art to follow the amazing journeys of three remarkable young people, whose stories intertwine in a world full of magical and surreal moments.

Melody Loses Her Mojo received its world premiere at the Playhouse, Liverpool, on 20 September 2013 in a coproduction between 20 Stories High, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and the Curve, Leicester.

On With the Dance

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A sketch for a revue must be quick, sharp, funny (or sentimental) and to the point, with a good, really good black-out line. Whether the performers are naked or wearing crinolines is quite beside the point; the same rule applies'.

Thus did Noël Coward describe the ingredients for a successful revue sketch; in the 1920s and 1930s he mastered and defined the art of the revue – short and often topical or satirical sketches, many of which were a lead-in to a song. He started producing sketches for some of the most famous revues of the period.

On with the Dance was first presented by Charles B. Cochran at the London Pavilion, on 30 April 1925. It ran for 229 performances.

Red Red Shoes

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

Commissioned by Unicorn Theatre for Children and The Place, this play is based on Hans Christian Andersen's well-known tale The Red Shoes. It uses dance, music and drama to explore the inner world of a traumatised child fleeing war in Eastern Europe, powerfully dramatising a life and death conflict. For nine years and over.

The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie: Ballet

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie two sisters, both named Annie, make their way from Louisiana to Los Angeles and back, as one sister’s success as a starlet and desired woman (in tandem with her sister’s attendance as manager and guide) are tracked through the seven deadly sins of Sloth, Pride, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice and Envy.

Written in exile in May 1933, a few months after Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany, it was written when, according to John Willett, ‘Brecht joined Weill in Paris . . . and supplied a libretto which was essentially a cycle of songs for [Lotte] Lenya in the old pseudo-American vein.’

This translation by the poets Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden was first published in 1961.

Having emerged as a vital, diverse and challenging theatrical force, today dance encompasses a range of forms, including the classical, modern and postmodern. As a body of work it includes the narrative, formal, abstract and experimental. It is an established academic discipline and includes a vibrant variety of participatory activity. In the late nineteenth century established theatrical dance forms had seen a decline, yet the seeds of a revival that would lead to twentieth-century forms had been planted. Dance had reached an all-time low in its visibility and status. European ballet seemed to be in decline; in Russia, where Marius Petipa had led a nineteenth-century transformation of ballet into a polished virtuoso art, there was dissatisfaction and a sense of stagnation; in the UK, ballet had become part of the music hall and pantomime but there was no established ballet company, let alone a national one. Elsewhere, indifferent ballets provided vehicles for star performers to show off their technique. In America, ballet was an import; in New York the stars were European, and beyond, ballet was often a pale imitation of European originals.

At the same time, a number of growth points were emerging; some of them from the very music hall and vaudeville into which ballet had gone. A number of individual dancers, especially women, emerged from this milieu in the last years of the nineteenth century, experimenting with new ideas and moving away from traditional forms. A singular, albeit indirect, influence on many of them was the French actor and theorist François Delsarte (1811–71). His successors spread the Delsarte system of expression throughout the world and expression, especially individual expression, became a watchword for modern dancers at the turn of the century, including Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, and for the musician Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, whose eurythmics in turn influenced many European innovators, including Mary Wigman, Hanya Holm and Marie Rambert, who was hired by Serge Diaghilev to use the method with his company, the Ballets Russes (1909–29).

It was Diaghilev who reinstated the artistic respectability of ballet and brought it into the twentieth century. He devised collaborations among innovative composers, designers and choreographers. His dancers displayed new levels of virtuosity and artistry, and his productions were spectacularly theatrical. Along with Rolf de Maré’s Ballets Suédois (1920–5), the Ballets Russes redrew the boundaries of ballet in a modern European way, their choreographers and dancers giving the form new meanings. Following Diaghilev’s death in 1929, members of the company led the establishment of resident ballet companies with modern works in their repertoires – in Britain, through Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois, and in America through George Balanchine. Much of the ballet repertoire is narrative based, using a combination of mime, dance and character dance. The choreographers that Diaghilev chose extended the traditional boundaries and drew on contemporary behaviour and manners in their works: Folkine created the first abstract ballet, Les Sylphides (1907), and, for L’Après-midi d’un faune (1912), Nijinsky developed a new movement vocabulary. Balanchine created in America a new kind of ballet that was cool, formal and athletic, first for American Ballet (1935–41) and then for New York City Ballet (1948- ). This style can be seen in ballets such as The Four Temperaments (1946). The other major US company to emerge at this time, American Ballet Theater (1940), drew on Fokine. British ballet – especially through Ballet Rambert and the company that became the Royal Ballet – built on the narrative tradition. De Valois created dramatic works, such as The Rake’s Progress (1935). Frederick Ashton (1904–88) added wit, as in his La Fille mal gardée (1960), and lyricism, as in abstract works like Monotones (1965). Kenneth MacMillan (1929–92) took ballet to new heights of expression and fluidity, notably in classic dramatic productions such as Romeo and Juliet (1965). As the breadth of work expanded, so the popularity of ballet increased, especially after the Second World War.

While Western theatre dance has had a narrative tradition, its twentieth-century development explored much more than that. Pushing the limits of what dance is, and what it can be, was a subject of enquiry throughout the period. Dance communicates through the dancer in action, so its meanings and significance are mediated by prevailing attitudes to physical behaviour and attitudes towards the body, gender, race and nation. Traditionally, ballet reflected the behaviours from which it originated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with an emphasis on male gallantry. The social and political changes under way at the opening of the twentieth century allowed for and encouraged different types of dance. Some of these were evident in the work of the Ballets Russes and Ballets Suédois. However, the changes initiated in the last years of the nineteenth century, especially those by women dancers, found their fullest realization in a new type of theatrical dance, modern dance.

Modern dance, as a new form, developed almost simultaneously in Europe and the United States. Its main growth period was the first three decades of the twentieth century. The pioneering work of Isadora Duncan, Ruth St Denis, Loïe Fuller, Ted Shawn and Rudolf Laban typified the new and diverse experiments of the early years of the century as dancers sought to create a fresh mode of expression. Many of the earliest pioneers of modern dance found inspiration in other cultures, traditions, arts and forms. They found many ways of responding to the challenges of the modern world and especially the modern industrial city. In doing so they created a form that encompassed a diversity of points of view and approaches, a reaction against the conformity of tradition. This range is evident in the idealism of Isadora Duncan’s work in Europe; the African American roots of the dancing of Josephine Baker in Paris; the eclectic cultural mix of Denisshawn, Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis’s company and school in California; Delsarte-inspired dancers throughout the United States; and the expressionism found in European modern dance. Influences from this latter movement can be seen in many early modern dance works of the 1920s and 1930s. Rudolf Laban’s work, his companies, movement choirs and ideas, dominated European modern dance until the 1930s. In Germany he achieved his greatest recognition in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as ballet director of the Berlin State Opera and leader of the state’s dance organizations. Kurt Jooss’s work drew on the analysis and methods of his teacher Laban on expressionist theatre, especially that of Kaiser, and the politics of the time. His signature work The Green Table (1932) is the definitive statement of dance of the time – a powerfully crafted anti-war dance-drama that received international acclaim and exemplified the theatrical heights that the new modern dance had reached in Europe. Mary Wigman gave voice to the individual European woman, her dances reflecting the changes in how women saw themselves and were seen through three decades from 1914 to 1944, in dances such as Witch Dance (1914). The debacle of modern dance in Germany under Nazism, where some equivocated, some collaborated and many left, led to its demise. Jooss’s departure in 1933 and his arrival in England invigorated the emerging British scene, with his Ballets Jooss, and then South America in the 1940s. Hanya Holm’s departure for the United States in 1931 helped plant the seeds of a new approach to group choreography, the pioneering of American modern dance as a form and the reinvigoration of the stage musical. Laban’s arrival in the UK in 1938 helped establish a strong tradition of movement and dance education in British schools, and the internationally recognized Laban Centre London still bears his name. During the 1940s he, and his early British books, had a marked influence on approaches to movement on the stage (on e.g. Joan Littlewood).

America developed its own distinctive modern dance tradition, and this continued despite radical changes to dance in the latter half of the century. Its foundations in the late 1920s and 1930s owe debts to individual men and women, to Denishawn, to European modern dance, to workers’ dance organizations and to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Doris Humphrey (1895–1958), Charles Weidman (1901– 75), Martha Graham and Hanya Holm are often credited as the four pioneers of the American modern dance. The changes they helped make in the 1930s, exemplified by dances such as Humphrey’s New Dance (1935), Graham’s American Document (1938) and Holm’s Trend (1936), formed the basis for an American art form. Modern dance in America has stressed the theatricality of the group, as opposed to the individual. Many American modern dance companies typically show work by the founder choreographer only. The dances have a diversity of approaches, both narrative and abstract, but are marked by being clearly ‘choreographed’ with an evident technique. This twentieth-century ‘tradition’, a marked change from its roots, continues with the work of Paul Taylor (b. 1930) in the United States and the many ‘contemporary dance’ companies around the world. It was this form that had a marked influence on British theatrical dance in the 1960s, leading to the establishment of London Contemporary Dance Theatre under Robert Cohan (b. 1925) in 1967 and the revival of Ballet Rambert as a modern company in 1966.

Although the history of ballet and that of modern or contemporary dance are generally treated separately, the development of the two forms shows many similarities. The reclamation of ballet by the Ballets Russes coincided with the work of Duncan, St Denis, Laban and Wigman. Just as Diaghilev’s heirs, like Balanchine, typified the creation of modern ballet, so Graham, Holm, Humphrey and their contemporaries in the 1930s motivated generations of modern dancers. America was also home to the development of other distinctive dance forms that have had an international impact. African American dance forms had been developed in the 1930s as modern dance by Americans such as Katherine Dunham, theatricalizing Caribbean dance in particular. Other dances were adapted by black Americans into jazz dance forms in the 1920s. Many were taken and introduced into film and theatre, especially in the musical. Such choreographers as Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Hanya Holm introduced elements of jazz dance into their ballets, and there has subsequently been much cross-fertilization between jazz dance, ballet and modern dance. Asian dance forms have found theatrical expression in the United States and Europe. Early exemplars of the forms, such as Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal, have been followed by many others, especially since the 1970s. They appear in their own right and as expressed through Western forms.

Arguably the single most influential dancer of the twentieth century is Merce Cunningham. His work spans the distance from the early modern dance of the 1930s to the digital dancing of the twenty-first century. If any one dancer typifies the monumental changes in the theatricality of dance in the latter half of the twentieth century, it is he. He danced with Graham in her modern dance works; he developed a new formal approach to dance with the musician John Cage, insisting that dance and music should coexist as equal independent arts on stage; he experimented with the nature of dance as art itself, echoing Marcel Duchamp’s fundamental changes to the idea of art; he experimented with the theatricality of dance and its place on stage and screen. He brought all such considerations together in works such as Biped (1999). The experimentation with the nature of dance and the redefining of its theatricality in postmodern terms happened in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily in the United States. Dancers like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton (b. 1939), Meredith Monk and Lucinda Childs helped redefine the theatrical limits of dance. The works of Judson Dance Theater (1962–6) at Judson Church had a considerable influence. The debate about what defines dance and how it might be postmodern is typified by Rainer’s Trio A (1966). In this work and others Rainer redefined the conceptual framework within which dance is made and ‘spectated’. Here and in the other Judson works the clearly drawn technical and theatrical lines of early modern dance are deconstructed. The postmodern dance of this generation and those, like Bill T. Jones and Mark Morris (b. 1956), who came later, allow for an open, fluid, frequently ironic, approach to matters of gender, race and politics. Theatrical limits were breached by drawing on artistic, filmic and other frames of reference. The blurring of boundaries led to collaborative approaches to making work that go way beyond the ideas of collaboration initiated by Diaghilev and questioned by Cunningham.

It was not until the 1970s that German dance fully recovered from Nazism and the war to which it led. Ballet in Germany underwent a much-needed revival in the 1960s, especially through the work of John Cranko (1927–73) and the highly acclaimed Stuttgart Ballet, which put the country back on the international map. The Tanztheater that emerged in Germany in the last three decades of the century has many exponents, most of whom studied with the early moderns such as Jooss and Wigman. However, it gained international recognition for the innovations of Pina Bausch in such works as Café Müller (1978). Bausch presents ‘people as they really are’, and her approach has been likened to that of Brecht. Tanztheater is characteristically large scale (either theatrically or in length), presenting real people, real events and real emotions. The situations that explore the intimacies of life also reflect how it is socially constructed, especially through the analysis and portrayal of gender. These are facilitated by formal means that stress discontinuity, deconstruction and collage. Bausch is unquestionably the main figure in late twentieth-century European dance, her stature being comparable to that of Heiner Müller in theatre. Tanztheater has been an almost exclusively European form and led to a renaissance of European dance in the years leading up to the millennium. In Japan, the distinctive form of postwar dance has been butoh, a dance of darkness that has had an at times unsettling influence on accepted notions of form and narrative in the West. One of its best known proponents was Tatsumi Hijikata.

Ballet since the nineteenth century has relied on and continues to rely on conventions and traditional theatrical buildings – the Royal Opera House, the Bolshoi, the Lincoln Center. While the twentieth century’s new form, modern dance, did not rely on the theatre as a building, many of its later developments did. It is not surprising, therefore, to find formal and narrative characteristics that have much in common with the play. Dance can consume large quantities of space in its enactment, and the space around the action affects the way in which it is seen and appreciated. Few theatres have been built with the requirements of dance in mind, so performances are often marred by sightlines which do not permit a clear view of the whole stage, especially the floor. The experimental theatres of the twentieth century, such as theatre in the round and thrust or open stages, can be particularly problematic for dance. However, the late twentieth century saw a breaking down of such links and, at the turn of the new century, dance’s reference points had become wider than they had ever been. The experimental work has much in common with visual theatre forms, and many of its developments take place outside the theatre altogether. Since the happenings of the 1950s, Judson in the 1960s and butoh in the 1970s, the theatricality of dance has been less and less defined by the theatre space itself. Where postmodern and Tanztheater dancers have used the traditional theatre, they have deconstructed its meaning and redefined the purpose of the space. This can be seen in Brown’s work, where the properties of the stage space are subverted, and in Bausch’s works, where the stage is redefined and the dancers then use it to different effect. In both instances, audiences are asked to look at dance, theatre and themselves in a different way.

The story of Western dance in the twentieth century is of a quest for a new respectability, new forms and new meanings. From uncertain beginnings, dance has gained artistic, theatrical and intellectual credibility and popular acclaim. It has much to say in its own right and contributes continually to the way art and theatre are seen and redefined.

from Michael Huxley, Jeanette Siddall, Andrew Solway, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002)