Artists 4 Artists prove that they’re at the forefront of dance innovation and theatrical talent, with their double bill of Christopher Reyes’ Sean and Kloé Dean’s Man Up at the Laban Theatre.
“No one ever says hello properly anymore,” says choreographer Christopher Reyes. He’s standing on stage after having just welcomed us in the most friendly and open manner. “One of the things I love about my mum is that she greets everyone,” he proudly recounts. “But nowadays, when people say hi no one means it.” He does an impression of a passer-by coldly, almost resentfully mouthing the word hello and barely making eye contact. This is an all-too-familiar occurrence in London, one the audience wearily recognises. Everyone mmmmhhhmmmms in agreement with Reyes’ observation. “It’s so true,” someone sighs behind me. Have we always been this closed off to each other? When did we forget the importance – the joy even – of greeting one another? The golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is lost on us.
But Reyes isn’t having it, not before his show. In a room full of friends, fellow artists and dance lovers, he’s determined to prove that genuine connection, even in its most basic form, is still achievable between two strangers. He selects people from the crowd, completely at random. Two young women stand up, unknown to each other. Slightly panic-stricken, they stare into each other’s eyes. “Before you say hello, really take one another in,” Reyes directs. “Try to appreciate this amazing, unique person in front of you.” The audience giggle while the two young women self-consciously follow his orders. We all clap once they sit down, aware of how exposing that must have felt. Reyes smiles, earnest in his desire to connect people and prove that new social experiences lie outside our comfort zones.
It’s a quick exercise, one that reflects Reyes’ optimistic outlook; a simple ice-breaker to engage the audience before the emotionally charged dance begins. But it’s ever so pertinent to Reyes’ work. His piece, Sean, is part of a double bill presented by Artists 4 Artists, an artist-led initiative that provides developmental opportunities for Hip Hop theatre makers and increases accessibility for creatives and audiences alike. Sean is on the bill before Kloé Dean’s Man Up, and although considerably different in content and style, Reyes’ work overlaps with Dean’s in its emphasis on the importance of intergenerational communication. Both works strive to express that which was left unexpressed between parent and child. Both insist that speaking to each other – the beginning of which is a genuine ‘hello’ – is better than bottling up difficult thoughts and feelings.
Where Sean deviates from Man Up is in its fragmentary and open-ended exploration of cultural identity, particularly when shaped by displacement and migration. Reyes’ piece ostensibly tells the story of Rosemary, a migrant worker from the Philippines and mother to the titular character, Sean. Their relationship is clearly one of deep love and pride, but, as Sean grows up and descends into alcoholism, it becomes one of increasing pain and conflict. Using diverse narrative techniques, music and, of course, dance, Sean goes beyond the complex dynamics of the parent-child relationship to examine Sean / Reyes’ relationship to himself; that is, to his second generation, British-born Filipino identity. Making a feature of his mother’s ability to meet and greet passers-by, Sean by contrast struggles to connect with, let alone greet and embrace the disparate parts of himself, whether cultural or psychological. Sean is, therefore, Reyes’ beautiful and poignant attempt to reckon with those parts, as well as his past.
Sean begins nevertheless in the distant past, specifically during the early years of Rosemary settling in the UK. Reyes stands to the side of the stage, positioned just outside of the memory, narrating the early years of his childhood, not quite a participant of the action yet. His mother (played by the exceptional Jonadette Carpio) kneels centre-stage, humbly looking down. A long orangey yellow cloth sweeps down from the left of the stage, across the front, curving inwards towards Rosemary. The end of the cloth is wrapped around her lower body and tucked into her waistband. Like an umbilical cord or rope it reconnects Rosemary to her homeland. But it also forms a bridge between east and west, myth and reality, Chris’ Filipino roots and his British-Filipino upbringing. At one end of the cloth lies a beautiful country, shrouded in mysticism and dreams, and conjured up by the stories Rosemary tells the young Reyes; at the other is Rosemary, the living embodiment of Filipino culture but also the inheritor of another, one that is perhaps at odds with the mythical spirits of earth, air, fire and water found in the folklore of her country.
For the parent who migrates to another land, culture is to an extent portable, evoked in the language, gestures and beliefs she carries within her; for the child born away from their homeland however, accessing their mother culture proves difficult, especially when immersed in another. Standing on the edge of the stage, watching his mother’s connection to the past, as symbolised by this great swath of material, Reyes’ position to his multiple identities is made manifest. Initially it is a nostalgic, almost rose-tinted – or rather sun-tinged – view of his mother; it’s the sunny side of the early days spent cleaning people’s homes and taking young Sean with her. A child-like joviality masks the precarity and difficulty of their situation, with Rosemary swaying to ‘Que sera sera’. But as the cloth is removed, rolled up and thrown off stage, the curtain of childhood innocence and illusion falls. The mother’s discontent and unease becomes the child’s, and Reyes recalls with humour his innumerable attempts to cheer Rosemary up (flowers, chocolate and fish). Late nights left alone in a darkened house stir up fear and hint at domestic hostility upon his parents’ return from work. It is here, at this juncture of increasing anxiety, that Reyes slips into the story, relinquishing his role as narrator to become his teenage self, Sean.
Loud voices in the night, harsh words exchanged under cover of darkness later come to light. Sitting at a table for his evening meal, bursting with pride and eagerness with news of his exam result (the latest scheme to please mum), Sean is chided by his mother for arriving home late and only receiving a ‘B’ for his test: “What’s the highest grade, Sean?!” Rosemary barks. Sean, visibly crushed, whimpers, “…an A”. It’s a stark scene that scales the heights of emotion; one moment I was chuckling away at Sean being forced by Rosemary to say the Lord’s prayer before announcing his news and resuming dinner; the next, I felt crestfallen, punched in the stomach by this unnecessary reproach and wishing I could give Sean a big hug. Rosemary’s harshness over the grade reminded me of the pressure many immigrant families feel to not only do and be good, but do and be better than those born in the UK. The constant pressure to prove one’s worth by surpassing social and institutional standards; to “earn your place” through a continued state of excellence; to overturn whatever prejudicial system or closeminded communal notion by delivering nothing but perfect ‘As’ for example, is a vicious reality for many immigrant parents and their children. Perhaps, in Rosemary’s haste to upbraid her son, we see a desire to protect and prepare Sean for a world built on double standards, especially when you’re considered “different”.
Sean never directly confirms or rejects that Rosemary’s discontent stems from the difficulties of displacement. Instead we see fragments, snapshots, emotionally loaded moments which give an incisive insight into Sean and Rosemary’s struggles. Encircled by light at the edge of the stage, Rosemary looks out, greets no one, explains that she’s come to clean our homes. Standing alone, she appears a delicate slip of a woman. Her voice is small, polite, its creased tone of edgy sharpness heard during the dinner scene now ironed out for her prospective employer. From where I was sitting, Rosemary’s extended hand and softly spoken address, her faint supplicatory smile, seemed pained. This greeting, in contrast to that mentioned by Reyes before the start of the show, is given through tears and strain and a loneliness that suggests something of Rosemary’s toil and hurt. “Hello,” she whispers into the unresponsive auditorium, “I’m Rosemary. I’m here to clean your home.” Does the employer really see her? Do they, as Reyes asked of the two young women in the introduction, see this ‘unique amazing individual’ in front of them?
Such questions are indirectly posed and left unanswered. What matters is that Rosemary’s experience – however abrasive or embracing it may have been – is seen, felt, communicated to us. Scenes of Sean drinking himself into a stupor and goading his inner demon are effectively captured by Reyes and Krump performer, Mikiel Donovan. Refusing to love this hapless, painful part of himself, Sean plies it with drink, a temporary salve to the hurt and dislocation left over from his childhood. Again, no direct conclusions are made; we’re left to put the parts together, to hold these disparate memories with care and understand the pervading sense of failure seeded in his younger years. We’re asked to comprehend the difficulty and beauty of growing up with multiple national and cultural identities; to be of here and there, and subsequently feeling like you’re from “nowhere”.
In a climactic dance section, the trauma of displacement and parent-child grief is on full display. Mother and son are brought together, but not in a sentimental reconciliatory fashion. Past tensions are now physicalized pushes and literalised blows, as Rosemary and Sean battle it out across the stage. The whole piece has been building up to this cathartic sequence of movement. Mother and son fight, unleash their frustration and rage, not with the grandiose gestures and melodramatic manoeuvring of wrestlers, but with the perfectly executed placement of fencers, who intimately know their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Their bodies locked into each other in a kind of staccato call and response; wherever Rosemary travels, Sean is behind her, an echo of her form and movement; wherever Sean goes, Rosemary is hot on his heels, on his back, with all past reproaches now embodied and relentlessly forceful, an entwining taunt that her son cannot escape. Their confrontation seems always on the diagonal, as if their overt manipulation of one another is designed to always miss the point, never seeing eye to eye or coming face to face. They’re forever at odds, oblique in their continuous exchange of hits and volleys. Orin Norbert’s sensitively composed score washes over the sad scene, heightening the melancholy and brokenness of their lives, whilst alighting on instances of tenderness segued into the duet. Gently cradling his mother’s head, Sean then violently twists and thrusts her body away from himself; marching over to her son, Rosemary prepares a fusillade of physicalized insults which Sean cannot withstand. Affection becomes weaponised in this climate; and wounded love all that’s left after bitter words are said.
Sean is a brave piece of theatre and an even braver piece of dance. It stretches the limits of both forms in its profound portrayal of two individuals trying to find themselves and each other away from the motherland. That the final image is one of Sean / Reyes paddling back towards an oceanic blue – the seas between the Philippines and Britain, the gulf between mother and son, the identity-building straits of past, present and future, the healing waters of understanding – does not dismiss the home from home they make of one another. Disconnected in the past, Reyes’ fragmented though no less exquisitely choreographed work reconnects mother and son, uniting and healing them as it does so. Sean certainly has us agreeing with Reyes: these two individuals we bear witness to are ‘unique, amazing’ individuals to behold.
Kloé Dean’s Man Up in some respects reverses where Sean leaves off. If Sean rows forwards towards a new future, towards a man healing in the midst of recalling past pain, then Man Up veers backwards, back into the loss of a loved one, back into the vicious circularity of grief for those left behind. And, if Reyes’ work is a disparate collage of events drawn together through hindsight, Dean’s is a seamless exploration of loss from start to finish, one where the bounds of mourning are deeply felt and demarcated by an endless mound of rope.
Buried amongst this pile of cord, unbeknown to the audience at first, is Dean, just about breathing beneath the material burden. Slowly emerging from the heap, Dean struggles with its blue coils and elaborate knots; she is pulled back by its cumbersome weight when trying to find an outlet up into the light. But part of her doesn’t want to be free, part of her wants to remain submerged, buried in the coarse waves of loss. How does one let go when letting go isn’t an option? How do you free yourself from the ties of pain holding you down when those self-same ties bind you to a loved one? How do you grapple with the suffocating grip of suicide and depression? All such questions come to mind when watching Dean rise up and sink back down into the amassed binding from which she came.
But if the rope is the thing that cost Dean her father’s life, it is also the very symbol leading her back to that fateful day, tracing it, her feelings, her timings, her reactions across and around the stage space. Rarely does Dean leave the rope – or rarely does it leave her. It is a polyvalent object taking her backwards and forwards, winding around the intricacy of her thoughts and emotions, leading her through the narrative and literalising the stunning spoken word which accompanies Dean’s fluid movement: ‘Blue / Like the sea / It has ripples as it winds / Winding round effortless / Like a clock ticking time’. We watch, mesmerised, as Dean flips over and interlocks, all the while with the rope taut between both hands; we watch, heavy hearted, as Dean carries the rope from corner to corner, a Sisyphean load she can never put down; we watch, terrified, as Dean trails the rope around her own neck, coming to terms with and reliving what her father went through.
Sean left me on the edge of my seat, my heart in my hands, tears in my eyes, all too aware of the combative tension that builds between parent and child, of the unnameable loss when separated from the land of your mother or father (we try to swim back, even when the tide’s against us). Similarly, with Man Up, I was caught between the layered twists and turns of Dean’s processing of her father’s death, of a relationship that evidently meant so much to her, but was cut off all too soon. While Sean places hope and healing at the centre of re-enacted conflict, Man Up also calls for change by speaking the unspeakable and sharing heavy emotions carried by the bereaved, as much as the deceased. Although Dean’s father is never represented on stage – unlike Reyes’ mother – the love and unmitigated care she holds for him is visibly and loudly evident: it’s present in her smartly comic rhyme of ‘I was a Daddy’s girl / Through and Through / Anything you did / I wanted to do too’ and its distressingly present by the intermittent repetition of ‘It really messes with my mind / How nylon kisses on your neck / Can sound so kind…’, the phrase of which Dean says whilst trailing the rope around her neck, caressing it even when in the throes of distress.
Comedy nevertheless offsets the dark and continuous tragedy of the piece, as Dean recalls, step by step and thread by thread, how she came to hear of her father’s death. A random phone call from her father during a dance class, a random ailment that results in Dean uncharacteristically staying at home; an ominous and equally random visit from her aunt who breaks the awful news: all such events are woven together, a timeline shorter than the rope she holds, though longer in resonance and repercussive effect. Upon hearing the news, the stage narrows down, coffin-like, confining Dean to a small plot of light and space. Towering over her is a shadow – her shadow, of course, but also the enshrouding, stifling, stigmatising shadow of suicide; the insurmountable shade of grief. It’s the rope, and the seamless, peerless, rippling free flow of her movement that eventually, restlessly, draws her out from the domineering dark and into the light of narrating her story.
Dean has performed and moved audiences with Man Up before. At the Breakin’ Convention 2019 in early May, I saw the piece in all its raw, emotive and poetically rich glory. Performing it to a smaller crowd, in the modest Lilian Bayliss Studio, Dean offered a solo of exquisite sensitivity to the pressing and personal issue of suicide. Seeing it for the second time at the Trinity Laban Theatre, I was still impressed and profoundly moved, although this time I appreciated Dean’s limitless ingenuity, her ability to shift and change emotional gear, and her sheer stamina to perform for nearly an hour without pause; I appreciated the additional accompaniment of Theresa Origone, whose tonally textured and emotionally expansive musical composition made the blues of the work deeper and the lighter, comical palette more aurally and visually playful. And I appreciated, especially after seeing Reyes’ work, Dean’s determination to connect with her audience, to not shy away from the complexities, stark facts or alarming responses that arise around the subject of suicide.
Stepping out from the shadows they’ve both wrestled, Reyes and Dean not only greeted their audience, but took us into their confidence. Sharing their innermost pain, they revealed the depths of familial love, the interconnectedness of parent and child, the inherited traumas and hope of the next generation. So that, upon leaving the Laban, there was no denying that I had come face-to-face with two ‘unique, amazing individuals’, two exceedingly talented dancers and choreographers who harness their art in a bid to connect, confront and move those they encounter along the way.
Artists 4 Artists’ Double Bill of Christopher Reyes’ Sean and Kloé Dean’s Man Up was shown at the Trinity Laban Theatre on 30th July. Click the links in the body of the article for more information on all the artists. Follow Artists 4 Artists here to find out more information about their upcoming events.
Lucy Writers and Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou would like to express heartfelt thanks to Lee Griffiths, Creative Director of Artists 4 Artists, for allowing us to see and write about this piece. All images included in the body of the article were taken by Camilla Greenwell.