Flatpack Collaboration at the Birmingham International Dance Festival

June 8, 2021

With theatres all set to reopen on May 17, it was a bit of a surprise when the Birmingham International Dance Festival then announced that its summer edition of the 2021 event would take place entirely online. There are not even any live shows outdoors (needless to say, the weather is glorious), although there will be in September in BIDF’s autumn edition. Whatever your take on that decision, it has certainly opened up the festival to artists that would probably not otherwise have been seen, including a significant number based in Midlands; exposure that should be hugely welcomed.

Among the screendance now online as part of BIDF are many Midlands Made films by artists with strong connection to the Midlands including brand new commissions (many just one-minute long) and existing work, plus Beyond Borders, a film created by young people from the region. Without exception, the best of what is a very mixed bunch come internationally in the Screendance Series: Flatpack Collaboration, however. Of the six films from around the world, two in particular stand out.

Contrary to what you might read, dancing is not illegal per se in Iran, not even by women. However, a person can be prosecuted if their acts are deemed indecent or immoral, both of which are only vaguely defined. Iranian female artists in particular struggle to work under such cultural restriction, in a country that actually has a long tradition of performance dance.

In Plain Sight by Tanin Torabi
Still from film

Many years ago, IDFB as it was then, presented a season of works by Iranian artists at the Ikon Eastside. If In Plain Sight by Tanin Torabi is anything to go by, they’ve been absent too long. I watched it twice, spellbound both times, and seeing new things second time around.

Her dance, her film, starts beautifully quietly and subtly on a busy tree-lined boulevard. The four trunks of a small tree reach upwards. Perfectly placed, she stands as if in its palm. Simple strolling and walking shift seamlessly into arm gestures, falls and rises. Torabi and fellow dancers Masoumeh Jalalieh and Tina Beyk Abbasi almost never work in unison and are rarely even in the same part of the footpath, but poetic links between movements are clear.

Then, just as you think they might blow their cover and the work explode into something more dramatically obvious, they and the camera move on, the shrubbery part hiding them. ‘In plain sight’, to quote the title, but hidden too. The work not only makes connections between the three, but also with passers-by (there’s a gem of a moment when a passing cyclist instigates a turn) and even with the traffic, which all become unwitting actors in the choreography.

At the end, as they wait at an intersection, and right on cue with Faran Fahimi’s melancholy music, a huge picture of a cleric appears on an electronic billboard. I’ll swear he’s looking at them.

Torabi divides her time between Iran and Ireland. She’s already hit the mark with several excellent screendance productions, especially The Derivé, shot in an old bazaar in Tehran. In Plain Sight is another ten-minute diamond.

Torabi’s film scores not only in its powerful yet silent message and its cinematography, but because it has a single point and doesn’t let anything else get in the way. The same goes for the slightly longer Navigation by filmmaker Marlene Millar and choreographer Sandy Silva, a meditation on those who are collectively displaced and isolated.

Navigation, directed by Marlene Millar, choreography by Sandy Silva
Still from film

Shot in black-and-white, it’s a powerful statement. Like Torabi, Millar makes full use of her landscape, this time the spectacular Burren region of the west coast of Ireland. With a cast of 10 dancers, singers and a community choir of 40, the whole film embodies her exploration of the subject.

The community of performers are always moving on. As Navigation progresses from the cracked pavement of glacial-era limestone (overhead shots make the patterns on the rock look like something created by an ancient civilisation), through tracks and lanes, the repeated rhythms of the music and vocals are superbly echoed in the gesture-driven choreography that is precise and surprisingly full of emotion. It ends on a beach, and with shots of dark cliffs and grey waves. The message needs no elucidation.

The opening of Green Dawn by Fu Le promises much. The mood is dark. There’s a strong surreal air and a suggestion that something is going to happen. People peer into and out of caravans. A door opens and a woman fall out. I found it impossible not to hark back to Peeping Tom’s 32 Rue Vandenbranden. The film is that good. Unfortunately, that mood doesn’t last, and the rest of the film is far from enticing. There’s a lot of holding hands and running like ten-year old children, except they are obviously not. And as for the “mysterious green dawn” of synopsis, well, there is a green mist, but mysterious or scary it most definitely is not.

Green Dawn by Fu Le
Still from film

Time Perspective by Line Klungseth Johansen features Marthe Aagesen and Rebecka Lange dancing on a volcanic beach dancing against the backdrop of a rusting tanker. The setting offers so much but is not made full use of, Johansen preferring to hone in on Nina Aune’s pleasant if unexciting choreography. Apparently, the film explores Time Perspective Theory, the idea that our perception of time influences our emotions, perceptions and actions. That’s a lot for three-and-a-bit minutes and, despite an interesting closing visual effect, it doesn’t even get close.

I also struggled with L’Appât (姜公, The Bait) by Tang Chenglong (唐成龙), which is loosely based on the ancient Chinese story of angler (and later prime minister under King Wen of Zhou state, now central Shaanxi) Jiang Tai Gong (姜太公), who used to fish with a barbless hook or even no hook at all, on the theory that the fish would come to him of their own volition when they were ready.

The three male dancers (Chen Shifei, Theo Pendle, Geng Zibo) are excellent, especially in the athletic and physical trios, and Tang makes good use of some settings. There is a vague sense of the trio being swept along in a race, and that it was all a lure is clear (albeit in a very childlike way doesn’t sit comfortably with the rest of the film), but connection with Jiang’s story is extremely tenuous.

Mickaella David in Material Bodies, directed by Dorothy Allen-Pickard
Still from film

Finally, Material Bodies by Dorothy Allen-Pickard interweaves dance and dialogue as it looks at the relationship between amputees and their limbs. It’s beautifully shot and makes great use of colour and materials, none more so than when Mickaella Davis is seen dancing around the walkways of London’s Barbican Centre; her aqua, red and mustard dress making a striking contrast with the grey concrete walls. Davis’ prosthetic leg is very much part of her, of who she is. Best of all is the optimism and spirit her dance embodies. It’s very uplifting.

Flatpack Collaboration has now completed its run online at BIDF but for the rest of what’s on, visit bidf.co.uk.