NEW! V & A Museum Celebrates Choreographer Lea Anderson

24/03/2016

V & A Museum Celebrates Choreographer Lea Anderson

LCDS students performing in Hand in Glove by Lea_Anderson     2015_Photo Camilla Greenwell (10)

LCDS students performing in Lea Anderson’s Hand in Glove
(c) Camilla Greenwell

“Basically, wherever you like,” the people at the Victoria and Albert Museum told choreographer Lea Anderson as they discussed the location for her ‘performed exhibition’, Hand in Glove, part of the V&A Performance Festival 2016 in April. ‘“But this is where we want it.”’

They meant the museum’s Raphael Gallery. So, for one weekend the Renaissance artist’s cartoons will serve as a backdrop to dancers performing excerpts from the bold, witty, subversive work that choreographer Lea Anderson created between 1989 and 2008 for her two companies: the all-female The Cholmondleys and the all-male The Featherstonehaughs.

Designed by Simon Vincenzi, Sandy Powell and Emma Fryer, the costumes include a pair of trousers with a waistband that reaches high above the head of their wearer; two bodysuits hand painted to resemble figures in an Egon Schiele watercolour; and a top hat with a pair of long, black curtains attached that make the face, legs and body of the ‘showgirl’ wearing it invisible from the front. Only her sinuously waving arms show.

Lea Anderson breaks off from a costume-fitting session to talk to me one lunchtime in the café at the South London Gallery. ‘When The Cholmondleys and The Featherstonehaughs had their Arts Council funding cut in 2011,’ she explains, ‘I was left with a thirty-year archive of prints and costume.’ Although Jane Pritchard, Curator of Dance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, contacted her about acquiring this archive for the museum, the choreographer was reluctant. ‘Archive costume is dull. It doesn’t show how the dancer used it, how the choreographer thought about it.’

Instead, the now freelance Anderson spent five years looking for funding for the Hand in Glove project before David Steele, Vice Principal and Director of Studies at London Contemporary Dance School, suggested it could be part of the coursework for the school’s third-year students. Last October, the event was staged at the Candid Arts Trust in Islington, with the fifty dancers and the public all occupying the same exhibition space. The choreographer was there, too, watching how the dancers responded to an audience that was so close, and making note of any gaps.

‘The audience is on the inside looking out,’ she explains. ‘There is a choreography of the audience. It’s about looking at exhibits.’ At the V&A, second-year students from the London Contemporary Dance School will act as ‘performing ushers’ and ‘security in costume’.

Lea Anderson started out as a student of Fine Art at St. Martin’s School of Art, but a natural liveliness made her unsuitable for the artist’s studio. ‘I kept knocking over people’s work,’ she says. ‘I was always jumping up and down.’ So, partly on the recommendation of her Head of Year, she changed to a degree course in dance at what is now the Trinity Laban Conservatoire. ‘I always used to dance as a kid, and in a punk band in the 1970s. And I was already going to classes at Pineapple Dance Studios.’

‘I have to make my own work,’ she says to explain why she became a choreographer. She refers to ‘tiny details of gesture’, as if this is something she feels a need to explore. Several times during our conversation, Lea Anderson will demonstrate very detailed gestures herself, very clearly, with her hands and her body.

She began, she says, by copying pictures to make dances. An early inspiration was Elizabethan portraits. Later work would draw on Dada, Russian Constructivism, and the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Busby Berkeley: ‘The great thing about theatre is that you can perform anything. You play what you want. Theatre is about new possibilities. You’ve got to keep people on their toes.

I read her what Ramsey Burt says about Birthday (1992) in his book, The Male Dancer: ‘“Anderson’s piece left a strange uncertainty about the individual identities and sexual orientations of her dancers. Through uncannily precise unison, all the dancers become more like each other by becoming less like themselves.”’ The choreographer responds by saying: ‘Dance is an opportunity to show relationships and behaviour without labelling it, to imagine new ways of being and relating to people.’

I ask if Oskar Schlemmer, the German designer and choreographer who worked with the Bauhaus, was also an influence. ‘I love Schlemmer,’ Anderson says, with a smile on her face. But when I wonder if her work shares the ‘occasionally dehumanizing’ aspect of his, she disagrees.

Not ‘dehumanising’!’ However bizarre the appearance of the dancers in her work, there is always a human element. The curtains worn by the ‘showgirl’ figure act as a ‘changing tent’ and a reference to the strip-joint past of the venue in which Yiippeee!!!, the work they belonged to, was performed. About another figure, in a sort of netting-covered tube, with shoulders as high as his ears and a mirror where his face should be, Lea Anderson says that by looking at him, ‘You become him.’

When I ask about recreating such work on a new generation of dancers, she says: ‘I really love it. It’s tricky, because they’re students and they don’t know what is and isn’t possible.’ Some were uncertain about performing in costumes that made it impossible for them to see. ‘You’re dancers,’ Anderson reminded them. ‘You can count steps.’

‘Student dancers wanted to move quickly. We had to do it slowly to make it different from how we would naturally move. Students would ask: “What difference does it make if I hold my fingers like this, or like this?”’ For the choreographer, it makes a great deal of difference. Referring to Draw on the Sketchboooks of Egon Schiele, in which the poses are those of the artist’s models, she says: ‘We were reconstructing a lost art that had never really existed. We had to be dance historians.’

While watching Hand in Glove at the Candid Arts Trust, I found myself thinking that the work was expressive of a ‘pre-digital’ age. There are the dancers’ bodies and the sometimes elaborate costumes; there is little evidence of technology. Anderson takes my point, but seems to think the difference between then and now is more a question of money. ‘Because of cuts, people dance ‘neutral’ (in rehearsal clothes).’ But her verdict on what she describes as the ‘Primark dance pyjamas of pants and vest’ is: ‘Quite tragic. We behave with our clothing. This is eliminated if everyone is in a leotard. What costume can bring to movement is enormous. There is a lot more to movement than demonstrating technique.’

The internet enabled Lea Anderson to show the student dancers material. ‘Everyone had films on their phones.’ As dancers who performed in the original works helped with the coaching for Hand in Glove, they sometimes wondered how to access an image. Often, the students had already found it. ‘In the past,’ she points out, ‘everyone would gather round a single image of one of the impossible shapes in the Egon Schiele drawings. Now, everyone wants to go away and work on their own. I want to say: “Put your phones down and look at my picture.”’’

She is also using the internet for a new project called Pan’s People Papers, in which some of her old costumes are recycled. ‘For digital projects they give you even less money.’ The problem with work on Facebook has been that: ‘People can not see it as a work in its own right. Facebook is about people marketing and publicising themselves.’

Referring, again, to cuts in funding, Anderson says: ‘I can’t work in the same way. I can no longer explore. I have to respond to things that are offered me.’ It was partly for financial reasons that the focus in Ladies and Gentlemen, her most recent work at The Place last October, shifted from costumes to props; the piece contains two hundred. ‘I just wondered what it would be like to have loads of objects.’ Anderson describes this choreography of objects as ‘just an experiment’. For the editor of Dancing Times, Jonathan Gray, Ladies and Gentlemen is: ‘a small gem, low-key and delightfully performed, and hopefully heralding an exciting new phase in Anderson’s career as a dancemaker.’

For the performances of Hand in Glove at the V&A, the choreographer is hoping that there will be live music. She has also remade part of a work called The Magnanimous Cuckold. ‘There will be lots more work and some new costumes,’ she tells me. At midday on the Sunday, she will be talking to Jane Pritchard in the V&A’s Lecture Theatre about her work, and about the ‘compromise’ between costume and choreography.

Currently rehearsing for the event once a week in the London Contemporary Dance School’s home at The Place, the dancers will not be allowed in to the Raphael Gallery until the day of the first performance. Lea Anderson describes the space as ‘vast and uncluttered’. She talks enthusiastically about a similarity she has noticed between the position of certain figures in Raphael’s cartoons and those in a photograph of a Russian Constructivist work for the stage, the costumes for which were designed by Lydia Popova. The gallery’s mosaic floor is something else that has attracted her attention. Talking about it, she can not help but illustrate the detailed shapes of this pattern in the air, with her hands.

The V&A Performance Festival 2016 runs from 16-24 April.

Hand in Glove will take place in Gallery 48 from 22-24 April.

Friday 22 April 6-9pm

Saturday 23 April 1-4pm

Sunday 24 April 1-4pm

Lea Anderson and Jane Pritchard, V&A Curator of Dance, talk about Lea Anderson’s dance practice and Hand in Glove on Sunday 24 April, 12pm-1pm, in the Lydia Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre.

John O’Dwyer

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