THREE. TWO. ONE! BREAK THE RULES! Hull holds its first festival dedicated entirely to contemporary dance and performance. Called Transgressions the eye-catching poster image featuring dancer and the Blade carried the tagline. ‘It’s all about dance, but not as you know it.’
Curated by Hull Dance, supported by Yorkshire Dance and Hull 2017, performances/workshops and panels, took place in venues across the city, that posed questions about the role of contemporary performance, challenging traditional viewpoints on dance.
The art world constantly eulogises about those individuals or groups who seek to break the rules, to cross boundaries: to transgress accepted norms and values. Over three days and ten events choreographer Jo Fong, companies Flesh and Middleton Corpus and New Arts Club plus internationally acclaimed Collete Sadler and activist Rita Marcalo presented work that provoked a myriad of responses, from joy, wonder, excitement, laughter, even tears.
Working with a dozen or more local people the Transgressions festival opened with Belonging choreographed by Jo Fong. Which was described as ‘starting with a walk and ending with a party,’ In the Bongo Bongo club a new venue to many – a place that looked like someone had rebuilt Tomb Raider era Tower, complete with jungle design and faux palms, inside an East Hull School House – the work began to the unmistakable opening bars of Every Breath You Take by The Police. From amongst the audience assorted people emerged and began to walk purposely around the space.
After some time it became evident there had to have been rules or guidelines to this piece, to avoid chaos if nothing else, but nothing seemed certain. Later as instructions were called out such as ‘follow someones gaze, switch places, do something that nobody else knows…’ the work shifted from curiosity to gradual understanding and eventually into participation.
Speaking with one or two of the dancers afterwards, its clear that the workshop series leading up to this performance and Jo Fong’s methodology and approach have been something of a game-changer for them. The aforementioned party was really good fun with Hull Dance’s own Ruth Drake, revisiting her DeeJaying days and setting the club alight for the next two hours, with an eclectic mix of classic tunes from St. Etienne, Neneh Cherry and Roni Size to name but three.
Day two saw duets by New Arts Club and the Middleton Corpus during the middle of the day, whilst the Jo Fong panel discussion took place inside Hull Truck. By taking over two non-traditional venues – yet both with a performative air – the performances and audience experience are enhanced in some way.
Cloud performed by Isabel Slingerland & Anthony Middleton of Middleton Corpus, inside St Mary’s Church was thrilling. Gone was the prescriptive music and the sole focus on strength and acrobatics that accompanied the work at Hull Dance Prize last year, gone were the tight outfits and disconnect between the two. Inside the the cool air of the church, against a backdrop of old stone architecture and imposing central pillars, Cloud proved the perfect marriage of performance and location. The draping robe costumes give a sense of the monastic; not so much a dance with a series of steps, but a hallowed ritual with time-honoured movements. This was a highlight for me, I imagined a life where each and every day began, with such moments of serene beauty and reflection.
The second of those non-trad venues was the Guildhall, not the first time an audience have sat inside the chamber, yet upon entering it still elicits a certain frisson. The New Art Club of Pete Shenton and Tom Roden, hailed by critics as the UK’s best-loved funniest dance theatre companies, performed a work that lent itself more to spoken word than dance.
From a balcony above the audience the work seemed to be about origins of everything. Being partial to spoken word, I enjoyed the work but after all the hype around the company, I had hoped for a bit more.
The main panel discussion overseen by Hull Dance’s Keyna Paul raised plenty of questions about rules of performance. Questions about artist and audience expectations, hierarchy and gender balance in terms of programming and practitioners and particularly timely for me – Read Here about Square Peg Disability and Diversity – a discussion on a work called Porno that is presenting a challenge to accepted thinking around disability and performance. An interesting and engaging discussion on transgressive actions, that although at times veered into the academic and theoretical, provoked and encouraged questions and counters from the audience.
An evening performance by Glaswegian artist Colette Sadler stays long in the memory, the sight of arms and legs becoming othered, raising all manner of conflicting ideas about the body. The re-embodied limbs, the stuff of dysmorphic illusion with spectres of Frankenstein’s creation. I am told that Colette’s second piece (pictured above) called ‘We Are The Monsters’ which was aimed at younger audiences, was just as extraordinary and surreal.
Only the festival organisers know why they thought Flesh, a raucous cabaret-style party, would ever work in a venue with a drinks ban. The second floor of Humber Street Gallery was the wrong choice. The clinical space did not lend itself to punk and anarchy. Hosts The Sinews – Steph Potter, Sian Myers and Fenella Ryan – did their damnedest to make it work, with the cards they were dealt so very late in the day, and a crowd of die-hard Fleshers stuck it out until the crowning of the new Prom King and Queen.
For a night billed as a tribute to the punk spirit, it is ironic that Flesh was somewhat cowed by the man… Flesh has been and will be again, a fun subversive party full of alt. performers and riotous hijinks.
The last in an eventful weekend, that saw audiences new to dance for each and every show, was a return to the city by dancer and activist Rita Marcalo. Her ongoing participatory work ‘Dancing With Strangers’ previously seen at Freedom Festival, was staged inside the gallery on the Sunday afternoon. A short film was screened documenting Rita’s experiences of travelling from England to Calais, to connect with refugees in the camps, through the medium of dance. It is particularly striking during the first few moments, how quickly the film moves from western world prosperity to scenes that are more associated with the third world: yet we have travelled barely twenty miles from the U.K. shore.
The perseverance and singular purpose of Rita and her team shines through, despite facing considerable adversity and resistance both socio-political and cultural barriers to her dance workshops, she wins the community around.
Now back in the U.K. she invites audiences to dance, just as she did, with the refugees in a unique work where choreography crosses borders, reaching into the hearts and minds, of all those who respond to the invitation, ‘Dance With Me.’
Despite one or two listing and booking errors and one bad venue choice, Transgressions Breaking The Rules, can be viewed as a success. With a little more support, publicity and communication between partners, the festival could grow and develop to become a highlight on the regional dance calendar. The jury is still very much out on whether this is evidence of 2017 fulfilling their promise to put dance at the heart of the city of culture, however the relationships built between Hull Dance and the festival audience, will only serve to benefit dance in the future.
images from Twitter #Transgressions