Friday, 7 July 2017

Review: Available Light, Manchester International Festival

Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, to convey the absurdity of arbitrarily juxtaposing two very different forms of creative expression. Available Light is not quite dancing about architecture, but it shows what can happen when an architect, a composer and a choreographer collaborate outside of their unusual comfort zones.

In Available Light Frank Gehry’s sparse, architectural stage design sets the scene for Lucinda Childs’ choreography and John Adams’ modern classical score. Dominated by a huge chainlink fence and raised platform, the setting brings to mind several places familiar from American pop culture: the sidewalk, the bleachers of a sports event, or a seaside pier, sitting atop exposed, crisscrossed supports. Though simple, it plays a key part in the performance, bathed with stark light and silhouetting the stage.
It’s hard not to think of bathers when viewing Childs’ lithe dancers, in their skimpy, figure-hugging costumes; their regimented movements recall synchronised swimmers or the discipline of early morning communal exercisers. At times, they stand still, resembling Antony Gormley’s rows of figures looking out to sea at Crosby beach. At other times they swarm, reminiscent of a flock of birds. One of the best moments comes after a brief caesura suggesting nightfall; the dancers are lit as if by moonlight, drawing the eye to follow their flitting shadows rather than the movements themselves.

John Adams’ effervescent, multilayered soundtrack steals the show. It swells and ebbs, sometimes muffled and distant as if emerging from underwater and at other times crowded with bright bursts and silvery toots. It suggests found sounds collaged from technology, work and nature, from radio broadcasts and typing to trilling telephones to the creaking of gates, the rumble of industry, the passage of boats, the murmuring of owls and the whining of the wind.
Like much of the best American art of the twentieth century (it was originally performed in 1983), Available Light takes its inspiration from life. It sounds and looks like the city. Though small in numbers, Childs’ performers suggest a crowd, incorporating everyday movements such as stretches, twirls and kicks. The dancers move towards each other and pass by, around and through, yet never meet, appearing to follow some unspoken but long-established rules of the street. 

Available Light is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 8 July. To book visit

Review: Last and First Men, Manchester International Festival

Deep in the former Yugloslavia are a series of strange, silent monuments known as spomeniks. Out of scale to their surroundings, many are remote, hidden and accessible only on foot. Commemorating long-forgotten battles and scenes of atrocity, they’ve been brought back into view for glossy, coffee table consumption by photographer Jan Kempenaers, who invites us to revel in their strangeness and unfamiliarity in picture book form as part of the aestheticisation of modern ruins. 

Unlike many monuments, these huge concrete sculptures are not representational, and are deliberately devoid of any religious associations. Instead, they as act as viewing points for the landscape, framing the sun, clouds and stars, or tower over it, remote and untouchable, arms outstretched as if about to take flight. Distanced from politics, memory and culture, this leaves room for imagination, as Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson demonstrates in Last and First Men, which revisits the spomeniks to construct new stories, narratives and associations. Taking its title from Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 sci-fi book, Jóhannsson uses the last two chapters as the basis for a dystopian tale that explores what it means to be human, how we communicate through physical and cultural distances, and the rise and fall of civilisations.

Last and First Men is primarily a film work, using black and white 16mm film to document the spomeniks and their relation to earth, landscape, light and sky. Often, our view is partial, abstracted and deliberately disoriented – close-up the sculptures could just as easily be fossils, ancient rock forms, rock carvings or primitive totems. There’s something of Paul Nash about the way Jóhannsson presents them; suggesting organic forms such as wood, seeds and bones, they take on the anthropomorphic qualities of surrealism.

Jóhannsson is well-known for his work scoring films and his soundtrack, performed by the BBC Philharmonic, is a minimal and slow-moving exploration of the landscape on screen. It roves not just through space but through time, suggesting ageing, loss and decay. The familiar textures and instrumentation of the orchestra lend themselves to this grandiose tale told on a vast scale. Jóhannsson's score is at once heroic, romantic and fragile, conjuring the drama of entering into a battle – against the passage of time, against the inevitable entropy of the universe – that’s already lost.

Taken by themselves, the visuals have a formality that reads like a slideshow or set of textbook illustrations, freed from their captions, but it’s Tilda Swinton’s calm, authoritative narration that binds Last and First Men together. Swinton imbues it with the air of a nature documentary or anthropological report, but Jóhannsson’s orchestral soundtrack restores a sense of humanity, communality and emotion to these man-made monoliths in a way that's rooted in the enveloping, escapist fantasy of the sci-fi genre.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review: What If Women Ruled the World?, Manchester International Festival

Premiering in the week that North Korea claimed a successful intercontinental missile test, and the columnist Owen Jones sparked a social media row by suggesting the British people should present large-scale public resistance if the President of the United States visited the UK, What If Women Ruled the World? feels scarily prescient and necessary for an art performance.

Rather than a hackneyed invitation to smash the patriarchy – although the need to replace established hierarchies is, unsurprisingly, a recurrent theme – What If Women Ruled the World? uses a creative platform to imagine a situation in which humanity is forced to start anew, and to learn the lessons of the past (and the present).

Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s commission for Manchester International Festival takes the ambiguous end point of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Dr Strangelove as its starting point, positing a female-led world in which women outnumber men ten to one and asking what would happen next if the slate was wiped clean and we could start again – with women in charge.

To start with, the piece has an air of amateur dramatics about it – think stick-on-moustaches, exaggerated accents, women in drag and ‘survival kits’ containing lipstick and nylons alongside sustenance and weapons – but the piece convincingly navigates between fact and storytelling, entertainment and debate, information and polemic. It’s both historically grounded and contemporary, incorporating possibly the first literary reference to ‘covfefe’, to knowing audience laughter.
What If Women Ruled the World? comes into its own when the five actors in the war room are brought together with five women who are real-life international experts in their fields, ranging from economics and development to archaeology and feminism. The women discuss major and recognisable challenges facing the world outside – from climate change, the threat of nuclear war, pandemics and the depletion of natural resources to ongoing conflict and systemised violence against women. Behind them the Doomsday Clock ticks away, offering archival glimpses into natural and manmade disasters, with both personal and global impacts, as a rapidly deteriorating post-bomb landscape is alluded to, building a very real sense of urgency.

What If Women Ruled the World? is an invitation to imagine things done differently, and to ask questions of our actions and priorities as individuals, as city dwellers, and as British, European and global citizens. It starts with a lighthearted premise, exploring serious issues with personality and humour, but it’s a simplistic title for a piece that suggests not just overthrowing the patriarchy, but our entire economic, social and political systems and fundamentally rethinking the way we relate to each other and to the planet. At a time when socialist ideas such as equitable taxation and economic redistribution are apparently back in vogue, much of the discussion captures the zeitgeist, but ultimately, it serves as a warning about bigger dangers such as the power of individuals and the cult of personality. It poses not just the titular question, but asks who should be allowed a seat at the table of power, whose knowledge and expertise we take on board, and what measures we need to take to ensure those voices are heard.

What If Women Ruled the World? is at Mayfield, Manchester, until Saturday 8 July as part of Manchester International Festival. To book visit