Giving new meaning to mash-up: Cecilia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud’s DFS

Sadler’s Wells, London
April 23, 2018

Alexandra Gray

Jamaican dancehall meets ballet. It’s an intriguing premise. In fact, it’s more complex that that as DFS choreographers Cecilia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud also attempt a melding of musical styles. Throughout this baffling 50-minute piece, the pulsing basslines and sweetly sung melodies of dancehall are juxtaposed with acapella polyphonic song. It gives new meaning to the term ‘mash-up’.

It opens with a strong image: three performers singing stage right, while on the other side of the stage a moonlit, ghostly figure undulates and ripples in the ethereal lighting. Combined with the ancient-sounding harmonies, the stage picture is like a haunted, hypnotic dream. DFS then adopts an episodic structure which works sometimes – the abrupt musical changes reminiscent of being in a club when a song gets a ‘re-wind’ – but for the most part leave the impression of a lack of cohesion.

There are fruitful moments. The two styles are poles apart, dancehall with its earthy footwork and sensual rotations of the shoulders and pelvis, and ballet with its defiant lightness and clean lines, so the effect of seeing ballet bodies on pointe loping across the stage and thrusting their hips aggressively is startlingly contemporary. At best it is a conversation between cultures but mostly the sections of singing, during which the dancers contort slowly into grotesque twerking moves, stand on their heads, or pointlessly roll about the stage, stand out like a painfully sore thumb.

Cecilia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud’s DFSPhoto Hervé Véronèse
Cecilia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud’s DFS
Photo Hervé Véronèse

The lively audience had plainly come to see the star Jamaican dancers featured. They applauded spontaneously for sections where the sheer animal assault of dancehall’s physicality came across. They were less keen on the singing sections and, tellingly, as the piece went on, there were sniggers and groans when these sections recurred. Evidence if it was needed that links between the two ideas are not robust enough to hold interest. The dancehall simply steals the show.

And what a show that is. You know you’re watching good dancers when you feel your back come away from your seat, and your mouth stretch into a smile. Craig Black Eagle is magnetic, his feet as light as the bass heavy. Both he and Damion BG Dancerz are vivacious performers who move fluidly between sharp hip thrusts and head nods, and rippling spines and arms, all the while seeming to bounce and glide across the floor effortlessly. It’s difficult to describe the difference between watching them compared to the classically trained dancers, perhaps the best analogy is to say it was like when you hear someone speak another language, and you can tell it’s not their native tongue because their accent just isn’t right.

Unexpectedly, the choreographers include a section where audience members are invited onto the stage to learn a quick routine, guided warmly by Dancerz and Black Eagle. A remarkable number of people rushed to the stage when the houselights went up. It was hugely entertaining to watch the gallery of theatre-goers; men in suits and ties, women in tracksuits, cowboy hats and more. The energy in the theatre really lifted, but the section felt random and rather shoe-horned-in.

The high energy continued as the lights went down and the music volume went back up, with dancers back-flipping and sections of joyous unison. So, when the ponderous polyphonic singing returned, the audience’s frustration was palpable. Worse, the breathless dancers couldn’t sustain their notes and the harmonies were horribly out of tune.

Style collaborations can work really well, look at Botis Seva’s work with Scottish Dance Theatre for example, but DFS is a baffling and frustrating collision of ideas that ultimately goes nowhere.