South Holland Centre, Spalding
16th October 2013,
Visiting South Holland Centre, Spalding as part of a UK tour, this innovative Cardiff based company presents a combination of dance, live music and film to convey a picture of life at New York’s famously eccentric ChelseaHotel. The hotel was a favourite place to stay in the mid 20th century for transient writers, musicians and artists, from Dylan Thomas to Marianne Faithful.
The talented group plays a variety of instruments on stage, and the dancers take time off from some breathtakingly energetic routines to provide the live commentary, while a video screen at the back of the stage shows images representing the rundown hotel. The show opens with all four dancers on a sleazy bed, from which they take off to perform some highly acrobatic moves incorporating tables, chairs and a fridge. A signature move is balancing at an angle, legs in the air, seeming to defy gravity for several seconds at a time. Most impressive – this is a company with diverse talents. The audience was mostly of mature years but they obviously got the message as there was hearty applause at the end. The music was reminiscent of several groups in the sixties including Pink Floyd and Doors.
Riverside Studios, London
Ros Haf Brooks and Sebastian Languenuer in Chelsea Hotel
How can one resist New York’s shabby, iconic Chelsea Hotel, its denizens so fixed in modern mythology? Opened in the late nineteenth century as affordable housing for artists, who hasn’t passed through its doors, famous, infamous and the curious? Thirty years separate my first and last brief nostalgic glimpses.
Earthfall gives us a simmering brew, an essence de vie: two couples to represent and distil in various pairings, straight and gay, the spirit of Tennessee Williams, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Sid and Nancy, the Warhol Factory, and, most notably, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, whose memoir Just Kids is a primary source: “Dear Patti, Rice in the fridge. I love you, but I think I prefer boys. Robert”.
And the blood and guts of so many more, whose madness and creativity, despondency and despair, is appropriated for a seventy-minute evocation by Earthfall physical dance theatre in an impossible mission to touch the hems of these impossible creatures.
The music is not Leonard Cohen’s, Lou Reed’s, Joplin’s, Hendrix, however, but an homage in sixties style-of by Frank Naughton, Sion Orgon, and Felix Otaola, composers and musicians—three guitars, keyboard and drums—mingling with the dancers, sitting on the bed. And they are very good.
As are the performers Ros Haf Brooks, Jessica Haener, Sebastian Languenuer, Alex Marshall Parsons, especially Brooks who dominates the action, riding Parsons’s back, changing costume as she changes soul and heart, dancing on top of the fridge in stoned self-absorption.
Into this ghost-ridden mecca come a young tourist couple in awe, eager to soak up Chelsea Hotel’s magic and mystery, hoping for inspiration. But inspiration often comes from suicidal gloom and there is plenty of that here. Dylan Thomas died in the room next door.
In tableaux vivants, in ‘Katie Mitchell’ video projections, and in confessional speech, imagining a kaleidoscope of narratives, angst-filled scenarios, drug-fuelled nights, exhibitionists and introverts, midnight cowboys and pimps fighting under neon lights, take their rightful place.
Ceiling fans, hotel corridors and service lifts, wallpaper slides and views from the window, stills that bring the past into the present, the present to the past.
Across a table and chairs, against a tall fridge, a couple tear each other apart (‘why can’t you hear any of my words?’—how familiar is that?), another huddle on the iron bedstead. Minimalist set (lighting and set by Mike Brookes) and a stage dynamic unafraid to go for long-held poses and inscrutable face-offs.
The inspiration of writers, musicians, and artists excavated in violent action, collective dance, meaningful stares frozen in time, also has two impish female ghosts in Victorian frocks flitting amongst the audience, tickling the ear of a nearby dance critic, getting into his hair.
The noble objective of artistic directors, Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis, who founded the small-scale Earthfall in 1989, is ‘passion and economy in physical performance’ via stories, true and false. This they achieve in Chelsea Hotel, but I should have liked something more than a fine miniature.
Chelsea Hotel’s volatile past, present and future, the incredible dramatis personae of its passing trade, the recent demise of Lou Reed, begs a bigger canvas.
The Riverfront, Newport
October 4th 2013
New York City, the Chelsea Hotel. A niche abode for the ‘art set’ to see and be seen – or a romanticised doss house, magnet to a strata of disparate beings in need of collective peer approval?
Earthfall, Wales’ foremost contemporary dance company, embrace the self-perpetuating legend of this, in effect, apartment block that has served as crèche to some of the 20th century’s most notable creative waifs and strays.
The ensemble of four dancers and three musicians experience the hotel as a dining table and four chairs, a large American fridge and a metal framed bedstead, all of which they love, lose, loosen and lounge upon.
The dance troupe use multi-media to enhance their cause. A large video screen at the rear of the stage acts variously as wallpaper, a punka ceiling fan, and shows the dancers riding the caged lift to the gods. Addressing a side-of-stage camera, her face and message transmitting to all, one of the young women introduces her friends as modern travellers who check in, hoping to feel the vibe and inhale what’s left of the hotel’s atmosphere, thus opening the door of our entry too, into that abnormal world.
Like fairground visitors to a ghost house, relationships between the characters are expressed physically as edgy, petulant and distorted, as the difficult aura overtakes these now time travellers, upsetting their collective equilibrium, shattering their innocence.
The historically loaded view from Dylan Thomas’ final hotel room is shown, and later the dancers reveal a glimpse of Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s inter-dependency and quite possibly, Andy Warhol with the power-playing, wild-child model Edie Sedgwick.
There’s some delightful, if slightly unhinged, light relief when two Victorian ghost children possessed of a poltergeist energy, burst from the stage to venture into the stalls, skipping and teasing amongst the audience.
The musicians play as rock’n’roll residents, and supply a range of there-or-thereabouts homage pieces that set the scene; the ’80s is represented through the steady beat of a drum machine, something from the era that placed Bowie and Lou Reed in one place (accompanied by some choppy Leon Garfield-inspired piano), as the two male and two female dancers create re-imagined embryonic relationships before discovering a comfort in unified movement and huddling in the lift to return to our century.
The Chelsea Hotel closed to new guests in 2011 in preparation for an expected anodyne redevelopment, closing the huge register of famous names associated with the place. Names, whose blood, sweat and (one suspects a vial or two of self-absorbed) tears soaked into the furnishings. Opening in 1884 as a socialist experiment in which rich and poor would live in the same building, it was soon a destination for struggling artists.
In this production, where the hotel’s atmosphere and reputation is everything, my grasp of a tangible essence of this portal to other lives differs little from when I took my seat this evening, but Earthfall have added to the scatological mysticism a surface gossamer, that reinforces the Chelsea Hotel’s own description of itself as a “rest stop for rare individuals”.
New York’s coolest, baddest and hippest dudes hung out at the Chelsea Hotel. It’s where Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen and where poet Dylan Thomas slipped off this mortal coil, apparently after drinking 18 straight whiskies.
Dramatising this hotel, hangout of writers, musicians and dropouts was always going to be a tall order. But dance theatre group Earthfall have managed to bring to life the essence and seedy glamour of the hotel.
The dance company have stayed true to Patti Smith’s description of the Chelsea Hotel, which was “like a doll’s house in the twilight zone, with guitar bums and stoned out beauties in Victorian dresses.”
The four dancers move around a minimal set, where the main action focuses on an unmade brass bed, their bodies pulsing to live music. The show starts with a hypnotic guitar riff which is reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. The fabulous live music, which is the powerhouse behind the dancing, is a foot-stomping mix of punk, rock and emotive ballads.
The choreography is pretty extraordinary, with dancers Ros Haf Brooks, Jessica Haener, Sebastian Langueneur and Alex Marshall Parsons showing not only grace and versatility but also great strength in maintaining poses not possible to mere mortals.
The girls engage in some flirty action on the big, brass bed, while the boys try and overpower each other in a lusty Brokeback Mountain display of cowboy fisticuffs.
Adding to the action is a video screen on the back wall of the theatre, which shows scenes from the real Chelsea Hotel, the grimy corridors where the ghosts of Lou Reed, Janis Joplin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Allen Ginsberg probably still prowl.
In one of the most poignant scenes from the show, the video screen shows us a bird’s eye view of the dancers indulging in a vertical dance on the bed. The patterns and shapes they make are easy on the eye, a tangle of muscled limbs and languid lines. It’s how you imagine yourself to look in a post-sexual semi-slumber – but in reality hardly ever achieve.
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