Friday, 15 April 2011

Gallery Ballet

Zenaida Yanowsky and Will Tuckett collaboration with artist Claire Barclay, the Whitechapel Gallery – reviewed on 14th April 2011

Amongst the steel constructions, wire cages, broken plant pots, door knobs and curtains printed like bricks stands a ballerina. She is dressed simply in black with pink pointe shoes, no make-up and hair roughly pinned back. Her expression is one of grim concentration; her eyes are focused downwards and she seems isolated in her own world. She moves through ballet positions, repeating the same shapes many times, as if trying them out in front of a dance studio mirror. But there is no mirror here. And there is no typical ballet glamour or music. The background noise is composed solely of the sounds of East London – doors banging, people talking, high heels clomping, a police siren screeching and a phone ringing. The only glimmer of anything sparkly comes from the dancer’s simple pearl earrings.

Such is Will Tuckett’s latest choreographic experiment. It is a work which references elements of classical dance against the Shadow Spans exhibition by artist Claire Barclay at Whitechapel Gallery. Performed by Zenaida Yanowsky, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, it is entirely different from regular ballet choreography. Tuckett makes use of the un-theatrical setting, taking typical ballet steps out of context and creating a dialogue between dancer and space. For Barclay, such collaborations make her work ‘come alive’.

There is no definitive curtain-rising moment. One minute Yanowsky is giggling and stretching, the next she is moving her arms into balletic poses and the ‘show’ seems to have begun. For Tuckett, this work is not a performance, but a chance for Yanowsky to find out what movement feels right in the space. Such decision-making agency for dancers is rare, but the choreographer’s influence remains clear. Each time Yanowsky dances, her movements become more refined as Tuckett gives notes on which steps to discard.

Yanowsky sculpts her arms as if testing their proportions – moving from curved to straight lines and then unfolding her wrists.  For a moment she averts her gaze, looks at one arm, adjusts its position and then returns her eye focus to as before.  Once, she tweaks the ribbons on her shoe. I am puzzled by what is choreographed and what is just her, being herself. Her body makes beautifully constructed shapes which then slowly retract as if turned to jelly piece by piece. Occasionally her hands flutter like leaves falling from a tree. At times she modifies her posture, shifting her hips or adjusting her spinal column, as if making her usually strong and immoveable base crumbly and fluid. Her body is both the image of and the antidote to the fiercely strong shapes of the installation.

As Yanowsky moves around the structures of the exhibition freely, her movement develops into a series of leg circles and slides across the floor. Eventually it becomes more challenging and varied, including balances on pointe and arabesques. Constantly, she tests the boundaries of the numerous walls – touching their surfaces with her toe, as if measuring the space around her.  Reminiscent of Swan Lake, she performs high leg extensions with her arms like wings. Later she reproduces exactly the opening of Odette’s Act 2 solo but without its usual context it feels (like the rest of her dancing in this curious place) enticingly stark and raw.

Eventually Yanowsky is able to reach through the walls; instead of the gaps acting as invisible barriers she becomes free to explore the spaces in between Barclay’s structures. But still she continues with the familiar movements – the circling legs, the positioning and re-positioning of the arms and the postural adjustments.

Wherever you stand your view is obscured and such is the magic of performance in a gallery installation. From some angles, Yanowsky is almost entirely visible; from others just a toe or hand can be seen appearing from behind Barclay’s sculptures.  Will Tuckett, at the side of the gallery, is smiling and occasionally jots something down in his notebook. He watches the audience as much as he looks at Yanowsky, seeming fascinated by their behaviour and reactions to his work.

After 50 minutes Yanowsky walks suddenly to the side of the room, and with a huge, audible exhalation, it seems the performance (if that’s a justifiable name for it) is over.  Later she describes the challenges faced: ‘it’s been so interesting... but it’s hard work to omit the storytelling I’m used to doing and only focus on the technical elements of dance. It’s very intense. I do need a hot bath afterwards!’

Such collaborations between artists and choreographers are unusual in the classical ballet world. While contemporary dance often ventures away from the theatre stage, ballet has remained firmly rooted in its traditional parameters. This work gives ballet a fresh airing, and whilst well-deserving of merit for its own sake, its greatest achievement is in the challenging of balletic convention. What ballet is, its meaning and how and where it is danced is no longer fixed. And that is truly exciting.

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