Into the Night at the Barbican

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Shadow Theatre at Le Chat Noir, Paris. 

I always look forward to the Barbican Gallery’s exhibitions. Theme-based with enticing titles, they always capture my imagination. The last show I covered there, entitled Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde (see here LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE) in January of this year, was riveting. With the theme of power couples in art, the curators had their work cut out for them. It was an enormous show. Letters featured in great numbers, as well as paintings, sculptures, photographs and textile prints. I remember been amused by Camille Claudel’s letters to Rodin.

When I turned up to Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art this week, the galleries seemed sparsely furnished in comparison.

I could see the curator’s challenge though. Cabarets and bars are all about atmosphere which is hard to evoke in paintings and photographs.

Walking up the steps, I entered Paris. Le Chat Noir corner to be precise. The cabaret sprung up in Montmartre in the late nineteenth century. Entertainment then consisted of poetry, improvised monologues and satyrical songs. The first artists and writers, who came here,  liked to call themselves ‘Hydropathes’, those afraid of water (ie wine and beer drinkers)

As Le Chat Noir grew in popularity and occupied larger premises, up sprung another source of entertainment, the Shadow theatre (see header image)

An arrangement of zinc silhouettes adorn the wall at the Barbican. It’s hard to imagine that they were used for such ambitious stagings of religious tales, epics and complete fantasies. People flocked to see these plays in a grand room hung with drawings by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

I run my eyes over a strange creatures with wings, a maid and a Napoleonic soldier on a horse. Later at home, I read of a production entitled L’Epopée (The Epic) performed in 1887 by Caran d’Ache at Le Chat Noir. It was a grandiose work replete with heroic Napoleonic scenes in twenty tableaux.

Back at the gallery, I peer down at the exhibition space below, where much larger recreations of the puppets, twist and turn above peoples’s heads and project large shadows upon the walls.

Still in Paris I turn my attention to dancer  Loïe Fuller, who performed at the Folies Bergère in the 1890’s. Fuller became known for her mesmeric dances, using her costume, poles and lighting to creative effect. Toulouse-Lautrec, clearly captivated by her, produced a series of hand-coloured lithographs.  In the gallery, I was particularly drawn to La Danse du Feu. It’s strange – so used are we to seeing mass-produced posters of Lautrec’s dancers, that we forget that they were of talented performers! Knowing a little about Fuller now, I will look out for her in the poster shops.

At the show, an early film features an imitator of Fuller. This dancer performs a flower dance. The effect produced is rather like peering through a child’s magic kaleidoscope.

Next I was in Vienna 1907 at the Fledermaus cabaret which was renowned for its spectacular, modern, tiled interior. Visitors at the show were treated to a recreation of the multi-coloured tiled bar, which you can admire on the lower level  of the exhibition. Gleaming tiles displayed fantastical motifs but the installation itself seemed oddly bare with no waiters or singers to animate the space. Music, which had been wafting up to the upper levels, had ceased. I think I might have missed a show!

Sticking to Europe, I peeped into the Berlin Weimar Nightlife of the 1920s and 30s. Of interest was Rudolf Schlicher’s Damenkneiper (Women’s Club), a painting depicting women dressed in men’s attire and sporting bobs. In Germany, women had got the right to vote in 1919, and were now, not only taking their liberated selves out, but foregoing masculine company as well.

Mexico of the 1920s was a welcome addition to the exhibition. At the Café de Nadie in Mexico City  radical artists and writers met to  discuss new political and social ideas following the Mexican revolution. Slogans such as ‘Chopin to the Electric Chair’ must have driven Chopin-playing pianists underground! In 1924 the radical group held its first  exhibition which embraced poetry, performance, music, woodcuts and paintings. Masks were also used, showing the movement’s attachment to ancient culture.

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Mexican masks by sculptor Germán Cueto 1924

A celebration of indigenous culture also came up in what was to me the most interesting part of the show: the Nigerian Mbari Clubs. They came into being in the early 1960s, after Nigeria’s independence. ‘Mbari’  was an Igbo word for ‘creation’ and the first club was open-air in the university town of Ibadan. Here writers, musicians and actors congregated to read their poetry, exhibit their art and perform music and dance. Another club opened in Osogbo and became home to the Yoruba opera company. 

oznorHBOil portrait Self-portrait of Suffering 1961 by Ibrahim El-Salahi

The clubs were both influenced by Western art but were rooted in their own tradition. I loved the art on display particularly an oil portrait by Ibrahim El-Salahi but also a black and white film of a performance of drumming and dance where the cheekiness of the woman dancer wanting to outdo her male dance partner is delightful to watch. The joy and exuberance of all taking part in the musical event warms the soul.

And this was the strength of this part of the show – that you could see, hear and feel the atmosphere of the club. 

An imperfect show but with fascinating insights into clubs from further afield. 

KH

Talks, music and film accompanying the show: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/into-the-night-cabarets-clubs-in-modern-art

 

 

McGregor’s Dance in ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ Gets the Youth Backing

 

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Dancers in the Underworld.  Company Wayne

London was in the eye of a rainstorm on the opening night of Orpheus and Eurydice at the ENO so I was relieved to step into the Colosseum’s warm, crimson interior and bound up the stairs to my seat. In the dress circle, people were filming the grand auditorium and taking pictures of the colourful safety curtain for ENO’s 2019/20 season, comprising a lyre-playing Apollo and Orpheus on violin, painted in the style of a Chagall or a Dufy.

A little frisson down the rows made me look round: a young man with a well trimmed beard was descending the stair with a retinue of blonde women flicking their sun-bleached hair and laughing. Were they stars from the Made in Chelsea cast?

An announcement was made. Alice Coote, playing Orpheus (she always plays the trouser role) was pulling herself out of her sick bed to entertain us that night.

Gluck’s opera has just three solo singing parts and Alice Coote, singing Orpheus, had the principal one. I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been more sensible to get an understudy, but I imagined Coote was the last person to bow out of anything. I hoped she was going to survive this stage marathon, and also (quite selfishly) – to impress.

My mind turned to other matters; namely the dance element in this opera. Much had been made of the fact that Orpheus and Eurydice was a collaboration between ENO and studio Wayne McGregor. Classical dance is no new thing in opera and there’s plenty of it in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice! What I was anticipating was however some modern choreography and a new type of interaction with the singers.

In the ENO programme, McGregor, a perfectionist I imagine, rightfully voiced the challenges of combining the two mediums. “I’ve worked on about eighteen operas, and I’m always trying to work out the best way to work with the singer and the dancer. It can be a very difficult hybrid”. 

Yes! On the night in question, I hoped that it would be both imaginative and would bring a new element to the mythic narrative.

Orpheus, devastated by the death of his wife, Eurydice, goes to the underworld to get her back. He has been told by Love, that he has a chance of drawing her out of Hades by singing beautifully. HIs voice can placate Cerberus, the furies.

There were moments when the dancers shone, for example as furies in Act II in the underworld in their reflective costumes (see header pic). In Act III  they worked well with Gluck’s elegant score in a modern interpretation of a formal dance before the Elysian Fields scene.

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ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE by Christoph Willibald Gluck the first production of the English National Opera (ENO) Orpheus myth season at the London Coliseum, WC2 opening on 1st October 2019 with 7 further performances until 19th November directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor conducted by Harry Bicket set design: Lizzie Clachan costume design: Louise Gray lighting design: Jon Clark

 

Memorable also was the bird dance duet performed by two male dancers, their backs beautifully arched, their chests thrust forward to suggest two plump birds. However elsewhere, the dancers were de trop in what was already an emotionally charged libretto (there was much talk of heartbreak and wanting death). Here they became a distraction, when the audience should have been concentrating on the singer’s voice.

Despite my misgivings, there is no doubt that for the younger members in the audience, the dancers were a cool addition to their entertainment.

The ENO chorus was outstanding as usual. McGregor’s decision to put them in the orchestra pit was an interesting one. On the one hand, their voices wafted up celestially, all the way to the dress circle where I was sitting. There was a problem however. The absence of chorus on stage created great gaps on either side and there was little or no scenery, other than a flickering screen. 

Alice Coote meanwhile showed her mettle. She started off a little feebly in the opening act and seemed to have trouble mounting her scales in the big bravura aria. She was supposed to be grief- stricken though after her wife’s death from a snakebite, so we could say she was in character. 

Sarah Tynan, singing Eurydice, spent most of the first act lying suspended in a glass tank, like one of Damian Hirst’s luckless animal specimens. It was quite effecting and dreamlike. 

Vocally, acts IV and V were more compelling. Tynan sang her disappointment movingly, when she believed her husband was cold towards her. The duet, with Coote singing “My soul is in torment” and Tynan “In a sleep everlasting” was poignantly expressed. Coote built up to the famous aria, “Where is love without you,” and the sincerity in her voice rang true.

And there is no denying that Gluck’s music is ravishing with life-enhancing echoes of Vivaldi and Rameau (Gluck much admired the two composers) This production however is Berlioz’s adaption of the original opera.

Conductor Harry Bicket, made a good job of ensuring that the strings, flutes and harps, conjoined to create a bright, sophisticated, focussed sound. The audience in the end was appreciative but divided on the dance. An ageist gulf seemed to have opened up at the end. The younger generation gave Wayne McGregor and his troupe thunderous applause but there was muttering along my row.

You can’t please everyone but actually the applause was decent and appreciative overall. 

I’m looking forward to ENO’s next offering in the Orpheus cycle: ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ directed by former Globe director, Emma Rice. No doubt there will be much debate over her directorial decisions too. She is no stranger to controversy! But I really hope it works as I’m a great fan of hers!

All in all, a promising start to the Orpheus cycle and ENO is to be thanked, once again, for endeavouring to encourage new creative approaches to opera. In this way, the genre is more likely to grow and become more relevant to our times.

KH

Orpheus and Eurydice continues at ENO : Oct 10, 17, 24, 31 & Nov 14, 19 at 19:30. Oct 12 at 14:00

 

The Power of Music and Birdsong

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Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge surrounded by fields around 1548

 

Man has always been enraptured by birdsong. The nightingale’s song is not only a thing of rare beauty but a complex affair. Naturalists have likened the nightingale’s musical talents to that of a jazz musician, who is able to improvise on several instruments at once! 

I was therefore horrified to hear recently of the 90 per cent decline in the nightingale population. The statistics for birds are grim overall: 67 species have disappeared in the past 50 years amounting to about 40 million birds.

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Of course we have all noticed how silent our city parks have become. If it wasn’t for the shrieking parakeets which have populated London in the last 15 years, our green spaces would be nearly silent.

With these sad thoughts running through my mind, I attended a bird-inspired musical event, Absolute Bird, held at Southwark Cathedral. It was hosted by our capital’s most forward-looking orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia.  The orchestra, made up of 40 outstanding professional musicians, has always believed in the transformative powers of music in all sectors of our society and this evening was no exception. Their mission tonight was to educate, entertain and inspire us with bird-inspired works and BBC wild-life presenter, Miranda Krestovnikoff, seen on BBC Ones’s The One Show, and President of RSPB, was brought on board to provide us with essential bird facts.

We had all received digital downloads of familiar songbirds on our mobile phones. Krestovnikoff explained that from April, for two months, birds in the breeding season, speak to each other through birdcalls and songs to warn about danger, woo their mates or protect their nests. The bird with the best song, gets his pick of mates and prime nesting sites.

 Asked to choose one bird song out of eleven on offer, I opted for the great tit, going for appearance as well as song. My friends either side of me, pressed ‘house sparrow’ and ‘nightingale’ (the Nation’s favourite).

We got up and were encouraged to take a walk around the Cathedral. Circling the nave, we started to weave in and out of the pillars (whose original design had been modelled on trees), our phones tweeting at full volume. Passing Shakespeare’s memorial, I stopped to admire the exquisite stained-glass window above it, inspired by his plays. I carried on along my way and focussed on the crescendoing dawn chorus we were in effect reproducing. Not since I was a teenager, had I heard the full orchestra of birds!

 

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Shakespeare’s Window in Southwark Cathedral

Back in our seats, we settled down to the musical performance. First off, some early renaissance and baroque music by Daquin, Janequin and Couperin. Le Rossignol en Amour (The Cuckoo in Love) by Couperin, was particularly enchanting, played on flute and theorbo, a large, extended lute. The flute’s trilling mimicked perfectly the cuckoo’s song and showed how the simpler tune gets to the core of the bird’s sound.

Rameau’s Movement from The Hen (La Poule) was a joy, played with humour and gusto by the strings with first violinist, Alexandra Wood at the helm, ensuring precision timing. 

 

Haydn’s Symphony no. 83, also named The Hen followed, this time with full orchestra. The second subject in the first movement artfully evoked the jerky back-and forth head motion of a walking hen.

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More serious in tone was Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A Major, The Cuckoo and also the First movement of Spring, from The Four Seasons. The divine sound of soaring strings filled the airy Cathedral which had been so beautifully lit for the occasion, the stone of the upper galleries glowing in a warm yellow light.

At the end of this inspiring programme I walked over to a sound sculpture on a raised stage in the middle nave. On three branches perched three plump birds, carved of wood. A black box emitted tiny flickering lights beneath it.

Gawain Hewitt, proud author of this interactive, sonic piece has worked with young people of Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School on The Absolute Bird project, getting their musical input, recording it and coding it. The benefits of music on mental health is a growing field and City of London Sinfonia seem to be at the forefront of this very exciting initiative.

I picked up two birds and moved them to another branch. As I did so different ethereal sounds and snatches of birdsong came through the black music box. In all, there were 33 variations of a dawn chorus.

Not surprisingly the project has been a huge success with children who have suffered great trauma and brain injuries.

I left the concert feeling warmed and moved by what I had heard and the next morning found myself rushing into my garden to record a song thrush singing in my neighbour’s tree.

KH

To find out more about City of London Sinfonia orchestra: https://cityoflondonsinfonia.co.uk

And https://cityoflondonsinfonia.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/the-influence-of-absolute-bird/

RSPB (Royal Society of Protection of Birds) : https://www.rspb.org.uk

Southwark Cathedral has perfect acoustics. What’s on : https://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/whats-on/

LOST HISTORY RECLAIMED: William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’

The first shot of World War I was fired in present-day Togo, in Africa. Did you know that? Nor did I. We know the name of the man who fired it – Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi, who was part of the British West Africa Frontier Force, fighting in what was at that time a German colony. Maybe a million Africans served under the British in World War I, and maybe 350,000 under the Germans, but we know hardly any of their names at all. They were carriers and porters for the most part, as un-individualized and to those they worked for, as easily replaceable as the mules and horses they worked alongside.

This is the starting point for William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load,’ a simply astounding piece of work that mixes his art with shadow-play, defunct documentation, African dance, early jazz, Dada-ist insanity and historical fact; plus the bodies and voices of an ensemble team of musicians, singers and dancers. At Tate Modern, the gloomy length of the stage gave it something of the feel of a mystery play as well – one moment, one image, succeeding the last in a manner that suggested the ticking-past of images on some lost newsreel of ghosts. ‘The head and the load are the troubles of the neck’, goes the African proverb that gives this piece its title; you might substitute ‘The white man and his wars are the troubles of the African.’

Kentridge was born in South Africa, white and Jewish, which placed him in the position of outsider, of observer, from the start. His spiky, graphic style takes genres apart. Is what you are looking at print-making, or an image in evolution into something else? Is it a print, at all, or is it an arrested animation? Also, Kentridge hates white paper. His images are made on newsprint, old textbook pages, out-of-date maps. In this show his spiky marking become the bodies of the Africans herded out of Africa and, shipped across Europe to end up in the battlefields of Belgium and France; background to the dancers acting out their suffering, the speeches demanding emancipation from those who returned home, the primitive technology that tried to literally shut them up and mow them down. I can’t imagine anything that would have made being there more hellish than arriving in the mud of Flanders as an African conscript, nameless – the names were deliberately unrecorded, in case one of them should perform some act worthy of a medal – and for the most part, bootless, too.

Tate.org man as speaker head and load

Print-making uses repetition; so does ‘The Head and the Load’, in a way that partly suggests the stalemate of the Western front, but also to drive its message home. You listen to a chorus long enough, are presented with the same statistics frequently enough, watch the pathetic attempt of two exhausted, ragged, wounded men to get back to safety down the length of the stage, and whether you like it or not, you are shamed into an emotional involvement with what you’re seeing. Occasionally the voices onstage – and what voices they are, what power, what richness – morph as you listen. A siren becomes a scream of anguish and of outrage, a screech of Dada-ist poetry the stutter of a machine-gun. To come out of a performance ashamed of the colour of my skin was a novelty, but this is what ‘The Head and the Load’ accomplishes, moving the audience to a standing ovation and in some cases, actual tears. The show moves to New York in December, to the Park Avenue Armory. Hats off to the Tate for having got it first.

armoryonpark.org, December 4th-15th 2018

Images © Stella Oliver

 

JCH