Wednesday 7 August 2019

Tête à Tête: Yolande Snaith, Roswitha Gerlitz & Kris Apple's Of Body and Ghost, and Alastair White's ROBE

Alastair White: The Robe - Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin, Charlie Nayler, Thomas Page, Moses Ward - Tete a Tete (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alastair White: ROBE  in rehearsal - Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin, Charlie Nayler, Thomas Page, Moses Ward
Tete a Tete (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Yolanda Snaith, Roswitha Gerlitz, Kris Apple Of Body and Ghost, Alastair White ROBE; Yolande Snaith, Barbara Byers, Kris Apple, Clara Kanter, Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin, Kelly Poukens, dir: Pamela Schermann & Gemma A Williams, Ben Smith, Jenni Hogan; Tête à Tête at The Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 August 2019
Music theatre, dance, virtual reality and cyberspace in a pair of new works at Tête à Tête

Of Body and Ghost - Barbara Byers - Tete a Tete (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Of Body and Ghost - Barbara Byers
Tete a Tete (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival continues into its third and final week, and we caught two intriguing works at The Place. Of Body and Ghost, a music theatre piece from dancer Yolande Snaith, writer Roswitha Gerlitz, composer/musician Kris Apple and singer Barbara Byers, and ROBE by Alastair White with singers Clara Kanter, Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin, Kelly Poukens, flautist Jenni Hogan and pianist Ben Smith, directed by Gemma A. Williams and Pamela Schermann.

Yolande Snaith is the former artistic director of Yolande Snaith Theatredance and she has collaborated on a number of projects with Rosmitha Gerlitz as designer. But for Of Body and Ghost their roles have shifted focus and diiversified, with the work exploring the changes in the human body due to aging, disease and affliction. The programme note describes the work thus, 'Of Body and Ghost investigates the aging body as an epistemological site, a living archive of experiential knowing where memory is etched in to the flesh and bones'.

On a bare stage there were just three performers, singer Barbara Byers, dancer/choreographer Yolande Snaith and, to one side, composer / musician Kris Apple, though the piece made little differentiation between the roles of Byers and Snaith both of whom moved expressively. Both were wearing striking costumes by Yolande Snaith, with the suggestion perhaps that here was the older and younger versions of the same character. Byers provided the striking live vocals which formed part of the aural sound-track of the piece, combining with electronic music, Apple's violin and pure spoken text.

It was Snaith, however, who formed the primary focus of attention with a series of dramatic interventions which intrigued and, frankly, puzzled. She started by drawing a huge circle on the stage in salt, to the accompaniment of a spoken text which provided some striking facts about the human body such as the weight of skin that we shed. This circle would prove the focus for the rest of piece, with Snaith finally dragging a huge bag of what looked like soil (perhaps the shed skin referred to earlier), filling the centre of the circle with it and lying face down.

Of Body and Ghost - Yolanda Snaith - Tete a Tete (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Of Body and Ghost - Yolanda Snaith - Tete a Tete (Photo Claire Shovelton)
The intention of Of Body and Ghost was to combine music, movement and visuals in a striking way, and in this it succeeded admirably, though I found it difficult at times to map the expressive movement onto the deeper meaning that the piece's makers intended.

After the interval the stage was filled by a far larger group of performers. Four singers, Clara Kanter as Rowan, Rosie Middleton as Neachneohain, Sarah Parkin as Beira, and Kelly Poukens as the Storyteller performed from plinths, each with a music stand and a score but doing so in a highly expressive manner, and Michael Stewart's costumes and Astrid Kearney's make-up were visually very striking. To one side Ben Smith played the piano (and percussion) with Jenni Hogan on flute. There were also three dancers, Charlie Nayler, Thomas Page and Moses Ward performing choreogrpahy by Max Gershon.

Alastair White, who created both the music and words for ROBE, is currently studying for a PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. ROBE is set in a future society where the real and the virtual merge. A powerful new being, Edinburgh, threatens the society and Rowan is sent to map the mind of the creature in order that it can become a living city. The resulting process leads to Rowan and Edinburgh falling in love, yet the map making process is fraught and the result is not quite what was intended. This story was told by Clara Kanter as Rowan the mapmaker, with Rosie Middleton and Sarah Parkin as the officials who despatch Rowan to make the map, and then Middleton and Parkin joined together to create Edinburgh.

But interweaving this was the ancient story of the weaving of a poisoned red robe, told by the story teller, Kelly Poukens. And at the end the two narratives seemed to merge.

Alastair White: ROBE - Tete a Tete (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alastair White: ROBE - Tete a Tete (Photo Claire Shovelton)
White's music has an intriguing elaboration to it, with instruments and voices executing striking arabesques, jagged and angular, and the resulting textures successfully evoked the strange abstract world of cyberspace, creating a real sense of non-reality. But though occasional key phrases were spoken or chanted to aid clarity, much of the poetic text was unclear as the complexities of the vocal writing made diction tricky. This meant that a lot of the allusive nature of the piece was lost, and I felt that there was a lack of dramaturgical clarity, it was not always clear who these people were or what they were doing. Or perhaps this was intentional, and the dramatic form of the work was intended to reflect the merging of the real, the abstract and the virtual to reflect the strange cyber-space world.

The work last around 80 minutes or so, rather longer than the billed time of an hour and it would have benefited from pruning and tightening. The performances from all concerned were excellent with none of the singers giving any hint of the complexities of White's music, and both Smith and Hogan provided fine instrumental counterparts to the singing. The result was full of striking and evocative textures, though perhaps overall lacking a sense of dramatic momentum.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Prom 18: early Britten and late Mahler from Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra - (★★★concert review
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  • Kynance Cove, On the South Downs: Truro Cathedral Choir & BBC Concert Orchestra in Dobrinka Tabakova (★★★½) - CD review
  • Second View: Prokofiev’s War and Peace - a work ranging from the intensity of personal emotion to the grit of national determination - was also grand and intimate at the same time (★★★ - opera review
  • The Romantic Violin Concerto: Linus Roth in Lassen, Scharwenka, Langgaard (★★★½) - CD review
  • Shards of sound: Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Étoiles at the Proms  - concert review
  • Sheer enjoyment: Rossini's La Cenerentola at West Green House (★★★) - opera review
  • The power of culture has not lessened in its ability to forge a better relationship: Jan Latham Koenig on founding the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra  - interview
  • A welcome chance to hear Cilea's other opera: a warmly musical account of L'Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park  (★★★) - Opera review
  • Mio caro Händel: a very personal project from soprano Simone Kermes on Sony Classical (★★★) - cd review
  • Prom 4: Adams, Samuel Barber, Holst from Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits and Nemanja Radulovic  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • War & Peace: Welsh National Opera brings its superb production of Prokofiev's opera to London (★★★★) - opera review
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