Sunday, 29 May 2016

INTERVIEW: Jana Prager on 'Femme' and Femininity

Last week I met with Jana Prager, Artistic Director of Jana Prager Dance Theatre, to talk about her upcoming work, Femme. Having grown up in Long Island and around New York City, Jana moved to London in 2014 to pursue her MFA in Choreography at University of Roehampton. We chatted about her enjoyment of cooking, baking muffins, and crafting.

Dancers Emily Robinson and Emily Neighbour in rehearsal for Femme

MP: Why did you pick feminity/gender as a discussion point?

JP: I have always been really interested in [feminity] and it's funny because until I was 23 I was in severe denial about my femininity. I had a really warped idea of what feminism was. But I realised, wait a minute, this is everything that I believe in... I've never been a typical woman, I come from a long line of atypical women.. But now I believe, we need to talk about feminism in our art, rather than just dancing around it.

MP: How has the project helped you redefine your views on beauty?

JP: I felt really cheated because my cast happens to be beautiful, they are stunning women! They knew from the beginning that there was going to be a topless section of this dance. In our first rehearsal of that section, I decided OK I am going to stand in solidarity with them and I am going to do this entire rehearsal with them topless. I have massive body image issues, but I was like I need to do this. If I'm going to stand by my choreography and stand by asking my dancers to be vulnerable in front of an audience, I have do this with them. So I walked around a room for three hours with all these other women completely topless, and it was the most empowering moment in my life. We've talked about how much better we feel about ourselves and how we realise that it's just a human body. And it's these bodies that have kept us alive for such a long time. 

MP: As a woman, what personal barriers have you had to overcome?

JP: It's funny, I know there are definitely things in my life, but most of the [barriers] I remember are from when I was a child, because I was such a tom boy. That was like a really big thing for me. I was a huge tom boy.
But I think one of the biggest barriers for me is people not taking me seriously beyond my perceptive sexual value. Living in New York and going into the City frequently, you get catcalled a lot. It's not a barrier like "no you won't get that a job" or "no you won't get into university". But it's really people not taking me seriously. It's constant, obnoxious and verbal.

MP: What methods did you use when choreographing?

JP: It's so funny, I was talking to my dancers, I was like I am so afraid for the day when I need to explain my choreographic process to someone. Because it is so random! A lot of the time honestly the way it works is I will set something and just tell them "this person does that, and that and that, and your cue to exit is when this happens" and I have no idea what it's going to look like. And then I say OK show me that so I know if it sucks or not and then we'll move on. It's almost entirely verbal. 

MP: Did you use any text or similar stimulus? 

JP: Yes, there's this one section that I thought was really paramount, which was about taking up space and how much space women are allowed to occupy- physically, mentally, verbally, theoretically. I love slam poetry, and there's this piece called Shrinking Women by Lily Myers, which we all watched together. The poem states that not only are we supposed to sit with our legs closed on the tube with our bags on our laps, men can sit with their legs spread and no one asks a question. We are told to be quiet when we are young girls, because no one likes a loud girl. Aside from that, even physically we are told how much space our bodies should take up. My waist should take up less space and my breasts are supposed to take up all the space in the world. We really talked about that- about how much space we are allowed and how much space we "deserve".

MP: The female body is a complicated performance space, how did you approach this with your dancers?

JP: For one example, when we started choreographing the topless section, we didn't immediately go topless, but we went bra-less. So if anything felt uncomfortable for the larger chested girls we would alter the choreography. So it was a very interesting negotiation of your own body and it's visibility. For me, while the breasts are sexualised within our society, they're not actually sexual objects. They are secondary sexual characteristics, which puts them in the same category as men's facial hair. There are non-Western countries in Africa for example, where tribes call Western men babies because they are so obsessed with breasts. And they really are these enormous lumps of fat on our chests that are completely human. They are just mammary glands, that's all they are, but I have to hide them.

MP: I suppose you wanted to protect your dancers within the process and performance?

I really wanted to make sure the dancers were stripped of any sexualisation. And that they weren't going to be seen as sexual objects in the piece. I have been really protective- I'm very maternal! I wanted them to know from day one that I was willing to do whatever I could to protect them emotionally in this performance. It's been a really wonderful experience of give and take. My philosophy is that the dancers should accommodate the dance work as much as the dance should accommodate the dancers. Being a performer is such a vulnerable place to be, you know, trusting the choreographer to make something you believe in, to take care of your bodies, and to take care of you emotionally, especially when you're asked to perform topless. 

MP: What will you take away with you from this experience?

JP: I... honestly, I didn't expect it to change my life this much. Ugh, so corny! I usually avoid stuff like that, because I don't want to sound like such a cheeseball! As someone who has had such horrible body image issues, and as someone who is at their heaviest right now (grad school takes over your life), this is the best I have ever felt about myself at this weight. And this is because of the relationship I now have with these women. But I guess professionally, I have learnt how far it gets you when you respect your dancers and hold an ethical work process. 

MP: Where will you take Femme next?

JP: I have every intention of recreating Femme again. It's just where? On who? How? Maybe someone will give me some money to make it?! I am heartbroken to leave these girls! But I would love to bring it back to New York- I am going to be applying with it [to festivals/residencies/etc]. I want nothing more than to work on this piece again. 


Femme is showing at University of Roehampton on 1st June. For more information please visit:!upcoming-events/c5j2

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Alicia Kidman returns to Roehampton Dance with new choreographic work

10 May 2016
Roehampton Dance
Footprint Dance Festival
Stepping Stones
Alicia Kidman - Buzz

Roehampton Dance Alumni Alicia Kidman presented her most recent work of contemporary dance at Footprint Dance Festival last week.
Featuring a percussive score by Dominik Told, Kidman constructs a playful comment on the fast paced London lifestyle.

Buzz opens onto a dark stage lit with one bold spotlight. Dancers Sophie Stokes, Emilie Barton, Jennifer Whittaker and Paige Jackson dart through the light. Dressed in plain trouser suits and dark blazers, the women already remind us of the London commute. 

They gradually speed up and begin to murmur a "buzzing" sound.
Interesting moments include an amusing escalator scene. Rapid shuffling movements and long, trailing lines that snake through the space send the dancers into despair. The familiar feeling of frustration at a blocked route or a commuter standing in the way rings true. We all understand their strained expressions.

Buzz is filled with queues, perfect lines and awkward stunted walking. Like our structured public etiquette, the lines and shapes that unfold on stage seem distinctly British. Patiently waiting and too afraid to say anything during your morning journey? The dancers endure one another the same way we quietly endure the man eating a burger at 8am on the Overground to Clapham Junction. Kidman seems to have injected her dancers with a heavy dose of passive aggression and impatience.

Breaking out of these carefully constructed scenes, the dancers spill across the space in a sweeping phrase of unison. As in her previous works, the dancers move and work cohesively. There is an apparent "wholeness" that is just as powerful as the dancers' conviction in their performance.

My only criticism: I wanted more. Would the dancers continue to simply endure one another? How would Kidman's journey end?

Friday, 13 May 2016

REVIEW: Footprint Dance Festival: Stepping Stones

10 May 2016
Roehampton Dance
Footprint Dance Festival
Stepping Stones

Footprint Dance Festival continued on Tuesday night with a mixed variety of evening performances. Highlights included MCDC's PLASIX, Eleni Papazoglou's Hello Frame and Roehampton Alumni Alicia Kidman's Buzz.

Starting the evening, Rhiannon Brace presented Baby, an homage of jewellery box ballerinas, giant teddies and disco dancing to her new born son. Featuring music by Elvis Presley, Frankie Vallie and Sean Paul, Brace explores themes of pregnancy, motherhood and love. The work ended on a high, as a group of Mothers and their young babies join the trio of dancers onstage for a last dance.
Following final year student Daniella Fox's film Feathered Folk, Michaela Cisarikova Dance Company (MCDC) performed the eclectic PLASIX. With luggage security announcements, loud sighing and a large number of bags and suitcases, PLASIX rings true to all London commuters. The dancers arrange themselves as if on a busy train, pushing past one another, before spilling out across the space. Slipping between episodes of sun bathing, tender waltzing and lively rush hour scenes, Cisarikova seamlessly transports us through a series of different locations (or stops rather). An overall exciting and colourful work of contemporary dance.

Stepping Out, presented by Elevate Dance Company, was a light hearted and charming affair. Investigating comfort zones and confidence, the more timid of the duo amused the audience with her "whole-body" pillow costume (essentially lots of pillows strapped to Anderson's head, shoulders, arms, hips and legs- brilliant). Stumbling around the stage, as she tries to imitate her graceful counterpart, the dancer eventually strips herself of the pillows and embraces the unknown.
Eleni Papazoglou's Hello Frame is a simple but highly effective film. Her subjects are asked to cover all four corners of the screen with their bodies at once. She draws upon the concentration and sheer determination of her subjects, who stumble, shout and giggle as they struggle to complete the task. The audience erupt into laughter at the humour and simplicity of Hello Frame.

Finally, Roehampton Alumni Alicia Kidman closed the night with her most recent work, Buzz. Dressed in blazers, skirts and shirts, dancers Sophie Stokes, Paige Jackson, Jennifer Whittaker and Emilie Barton weave in and out of each other, passing through a bright spotlight. As the pace increases, the dancers begin to "buzz", increasing the volume as they collide and dodge one another. Similarly to MCDC's PLASIX, Kidman draws upon the chaotic but structured rules of London life. Strained expressions and allusions to escalators and underground tunnels set against fast percussive music makes for an exciting and amusing piece of dance. My only criticism: I wanted more.
Overall, another fantastic evening at Footprint Dance Festival, which really highlights the talents of young, up and coming dance artists.

Footprint Dance Festival continues at Roehampton Dance until 14th May.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

REVIEW: Footprint Dance Festival: First Steps

9 May 2016
Footprint Dance Festival
Roehampton Dance
First Steps

Footprint Dance Festival kick started a week of workshops, events and evening performances with an eclectic mix of contemporary dance at First Steps. The bill included works from Roehampton Dance students Ellie Hall, Kali Allen, Dan WalshBrandon Trieu, Mitch Hammond, Harriet Roberts, Emily Robinson and Daniella Fox. Outside artists, Elevate Dance Company, and Sekar Sari also presented interesting films and live performance.

Beginning the evening Ellie Hall presented the self explanatory and amusing In Eight, which plays with timing, simple (but satisfying) movement, repetition and sound. 

Following an uplifting performance of Iridescent by Elevate Dance Company, final year student Dan Walsh presented an incredibly fun and light hearted duet set to Nina Simone's Here Comes the Sun. Bound together at the wrist, the pair scuffle over a pair of sunglasses. Overtly stylised and pantomime-like, Walsh parades about the stage, triumphant in winning back his sunglasses from dancer Abi Smallwood. Here Comes The Sun is cheeky and bold.

Film highlights include Kali Allen's DRACA AND ARACH, which explores the loss of a loved one and the chasm left behind. Daniella Fox's Feathered Folk draws upon natural imagery and repeated motifs. And, Indonesian Artist Sekar Sari investigates identity through the use of a traditional mask- a thoughtful and pensive film.

Other exciting works include Introspectator choreographed by Brandon Trieu of SomaKinetic Movement Collective. Dancer Phoebe Crnich indulges in gorgeous undulations and fast paced floor work. Set to a vaguely French score, Mitch Hammond's tender choreography in The Loneliest Boy in the World also takes advantage of his dancers abilities. Fluttering wrists and highly gestural movement guide Hammond's exploration.

Finally, 3rd year students Harriet Roberts and Emily Robinson's 3 tbsp brought about a dark and ghostly tone. The dancers clutch one another, humming quiety on the dimly lit stage. Their bodies seem to melt together- it's hard to see where one body ends and the other begins. Gentle mime, coupled with moments of precise unison and a shadowy set create Roberts and Robinson's captivating dream like realm.

Footprint Dance Festival continues at Roehampton Dance until 14 May. For more information please visit:

Monday, 9 May 2016

REVIEW: Saju Hari Dance hits the spot with double bill at Rich Mix

Sun 8 May
Rich Mix
Saju Hari Dance - Fly From &  Breaking Points

South Indian choreographer Saju Hari presents an exciting double bill of contemporary dance. Fly From, danced by charismatic Leicester-born dancer Subhash Viman, and Breaking Points, which sees four athletic dancers take on Hari's martial arts training, explore resistance and segregation.

In Fly From, Subhash Viman exudes angst and frustration. He twists his body to the tapping of a drum struck by dripping water. The movement engulfs his whole body, leading him through a section of animal-like contortions into a phrase of windmilling arms and unfurling wrists. It's clear that Viman's gorgeous gestural hands and focused performance are aided by his background in South Asian dance forms. However, Fly From comes to a quick close as Viman undresses in darkness, joined by five silhouette figures projected behind him. 

Breaking Points provided some much needed energy and humour after Hari's exploration of angst and resistance. Four dancers take to the stage, disco dancing, building wooden shelves and competing in humorous 'dance-offs'. Hari injects South Asian flavours into the work using intricate hand gestures and fast paced footwork. An amusing duet between two male dancers, set to a vaguely Middle Eastern score, sees the men copying each other and trying to 'out-do' one another. The men whip through the space with whirling arms and percussive shifts of weight. In particular Belgian born Filipino & Italian dancer, Jason Mabana is an incredibly exciting performer- definitely another talent to watch.

While Breaking Points hits the spot with its athletic dancers and amusing subplots, Fly From left us wanting more. Who are the five silhouette figures? And what do they mean to the work?

At a time when contemporary dance is only just beginning to be more widely available to people from all walks of life, it is refreshing to see South Asian dance and dancers on London's dance platforms. But despite how well the troupe attacked Hari's choreography and dance style, I wonder whether more South Asian dancers could be seen in other productions like Hari's

Saturday, 7 May 2016

REVIEW: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan mesmerise with Songs of the Wanderers

Fri 6 May 2016
Sadler's Wells
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan - Songs of the Wanderers

Founder and Artistic Director, Lin Hwai-min brings Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan (CGDT) back to Sadler's Wells with a mesmerising work from his back catalogue. Songs of the Wanderers is a warm landscape of rolling mounds of rice, tall desert branches and hypnotically slow movement. The work has a deeply ritualistic sense, reminiscent of the ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions of East Asia. 

Downstage right a monk stands in stillness, his hands folded in prayer, as a stream of rice falls upon his head. The grains collect around his ankles and spray across the space. Emerging from the darkness, ten dancers creep through the rice-ridden stage, crouching and clutching onto tall desert branches. The image reminds us of a journey- of wanderers desperately seeking enlightenment. 

The Cloud Gate dancers move with their well-known precision and fluidity, slipping into careful moments of unison, before throwing the rice in curving ribbons. Later, a woman writhes and shakes on the floor, reaching and straining with frustration. The men's muscled backs extend as they pass through inversions into quiet floorwork. 

Hwai-Min constructs gorgeous moments of contrast between the serenity of the lone monk and the unravelling group formations of the other dancers. Four men lay motionless, each flanked by a woman standing at his head. The women hold a desert branch in each hand- the effect is beautiful.

The work comes to a close as five dancers appear from the darkness carrying large bowls of fire. The flames flicker in the darkness, reminding us again of the ancient Buddhist and Hindu rites of East Asia. 

At this point, the monk, still in perfect stillness, is knee deep in the falling grains. Like a human hourglass, he is the embodiment of time and patience.

Songs of the Wanderers continues at Sadler's Wells until Sat 7 May.