Freddie Opoku-Addaie's SystemsLAB delivers a sensitive, purposeful mixed bill about fragility, femininity and black culture – review

Words by Katie Hagan.

Whenever I’ve watched a mixed dance bill in the past, I don’t think I’ve ever reflected on how the works glue together. I’ve thought how interesting it is to see two seemingly polar pieces brought together in the same space. I have also been the person who hesitatingly said one was better than the other. Sheesh.

I’ve never questioned why that’s been the case though, and maybe that is wrong. Is the onus therefore on me to think about the mixed bill as one? Or does there need to be more conscious thought from the programmer to ensure the performances feed into each other?

Although I may not have the answers to these questions, Freddie Opoku-Addaie does. His Mixed Bill brought to you by his venture SystemsLAB is going some way to change how we experience evenings of performance. Instead of fantasising about the dessert before trudging through the obligatory soup-of-the-day, SystemsLAB gets you thinking about them all, maintaining a consistent cadence detectable from one work to the other. 

Theo Inart’s solo ‘Fragility of Man’ opens the bill. Inart enters from the protruding door on the right side of the Laban Theatre’s stage. As the door opens, the lights above the audience are turned on. It is uncomfortable, like being questioned under a spotlight. Inart has his back faced to us and after a period of time he walks to the centre, standing there for a further few seconds. After this he disappears, leaving us in darkness. 

This is repeated until a voice from Sabio Janiak’s soundtrack ominously utters: “The mind is untouched.” From quite a formulaic beginning Inart plunges into the piece, drowning in movement. Inart crawls on randomly set chairs and runs into them; it’s like a scene from Café Muller. Regretting the outburst, he readjusts the seats and clambers upon them curled up as if he is in the womb. Sitting upright on the chair he strips butt-naked, protecting his crotch. Something is laid bare. He is (rightly?) abrasive in his unpredictability.

Once this storm passes birds start to sing. Whilst this is not a new trope, it does shift into focus the tempests which rage in Inart’s mind and body. The erratic movement sobers; medicating movement comes to the fore in the forms of slow breathing and body swoops. Limbs find the floor where they need to. Will everything be okay in the end?

The Batman mask is an intriguing emblem perhaps connotative of boyhood, nostalgia and subsequently lament. Although it felt right to leave this question unanswered, the lasting feeling was definitely one of poignancy. It takes strength to share fragility. 

Becky Namgauds’ ‘Exhibit F’ certainly follows this motif, yet this piece is very much one about female brawn. A hazy light searches the murky stage, falling onto a head of human hair. We can’t see a face; the hair is rockweed in shallow water. The head of hair starts to move, magnetised to the floor and slithering in serpentine motions. A body rises breasts and all, and begins to roll and toss, oscillating from one side of the stage to the other. This traversing is fused with capoeira; the body is pushed to its limits yet doesn’t lose control. Her breathing leaves impressions of both force and vulnerability. 

The whole piece is hallucinatory, other-worldly and like nothing I’ve seen before; tapping into hair being long eroticised as the object of hyper-sexualised femininity. In ‘Exhibit F’ hair is a symbol of resilience and female power and ownership, not to be romanticised and fawned over by men.

The next piece delves even further into this ‘strength’ concept, by way of two dancers literally standing on different parts of one another’s bodies. This is what is so marvellous about SystemsLAB, there’s no hopscotching from one to two to three, instead there are common threads which link each piece. Ffion Campbell-Davies and tyroneisaacstuart’s ‘Beyond Words’ is an engaging work on loyalty, ancestry and togetherness. Totem pole-like, Tyrone enters with Ffion straddling his right shoulder, his back facing the audience throughout this assiduous procession. As he meanders across the stage to reach the bottom, carrying Ffion and never faltering, he faces the audience where it is revealed he has been holding a saxophone as well as a human body. He begins to play, and I gush at their resolve. They really didn’t have to do us like that. 

Both dancers then take it in turns to mount each other. A shoulder becomes a precipice, a back a plank extending out above a surface. Their interplay is perhaps a nod to how we tread on the people we should be standing with. When this frame finishes, the duo turns to sets of outfits laid onstage, as if they prepped them attentively the night before. As they dress themselves with each garment, Ffion and Tyrone discuss notions of racial inequality and injustice. Although ‘Beyond Words’ ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, it still brings many ideas to the boil particularly on respect, racial taboos and the dreaded ‘C’ word: Colonialism. 

Jonzi D’s seminal work ‘Aeroplane Man’ makes a delightful appearance to close SystemsLAB’s Mixed Bill. A spoken word and dance amalgamation, in ‘Aeroplane Man’ Jonzi D harks back to the oral traditions of his ancestors. He transports us from Grenada to Jamaica, Brooklyn to Africa whining, breaking and hollering from islands to the mainland. ‘Aeroplane Man’ gets plenty of laughs yet there is method to this comedy. Beneath the Dollar Wine song and humour is the displacement which comes with being Black British and the journey to seeking commonality between your identity and your roots. Written over twenty years ago, ‘Aeroplane Man’ and its presentation of casual racism still rings true in a nation which hasn’t learnt to tolerate love one another. 

Images: Foteini Christofilopoulou.