sat 20/07/2024

Christian Pierre La Marca, Yaman Okur, St Martin-in-The-Fields review - engagingly subversive pairing falls short | reviews, news & interviews

Christian Pierre La Marca, Yaman Okur, St Martin-in-The-Fields review - engagingly subversive pairing falls short

Christian Pierre La Marca, Yaman Okur, St Martin-in-The-Fields review - engagingly subversive pairing falls short

A collaboration between a cellist and a breakdancer doesn't achieve lift off

Perched on a vacuum: Christian Pierre La Marca and Yaman Okur

The French cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca confesses that – like so many classical musicians – he was at a loss during lockdown as to how to develop his musical career. Then, at a recording for a TV show, he met the street dancer Yaman Okur, who made his name with the hip hop collective Wanted Posse and has collaborated with performers including Madonna.

It was immediately clear to both of them that a collaboration could yield dividends, precisely because it was so counterintuitive. Four years later, we sat in the crypt of St Martin-In-The-Fields to see what they had devised for a programme which ran from the philosophical plaintiveness of Bach’s First cello suite to the visceral tones of Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio.

The programme was based on the album Cello 360 that La Marca released in 2020, which explored the cello repertoire from its origins, beginning with works composed for baroque cello and viola da gamba, like Marin Marais’ La Folia. These early compositions presented the most obvious challenge for Okur’s style of dance, but for the opening prelude of Bach’s cello suite it worked well. His movement was simultaneously subtle and agitated – as if he was being tugged one way and another by the different arguments in the music.

As the final resonant bars rang out, Okur went into a full breakdance spin, amplifying the sense of release at the piece’s conclusion. Then La Marca introduced his multi-track performance of Dido’s Lament – in which he played the soprano part live – and Okur excavated the full anguish of the work, contorting and repeatedly flinging himself on the floor to evoke Dido’s torment.

Despite the broader range of emotion to play with, it was at this point that it became clear that while the collaboration between the two was an interesting exercise, in practise it wasn’t nearly bold enough. The crypt at St Martin’s has hosted some fascinating alternative musical events, but here it just felt that the space wasn’t being used properly.

La MArca and danceFor a start, the audience had been organised to sit in a semi-circle while La Marca played from a platform between two pillars – as a result only those sitting immediately in front of him (just one third of us) could see him properly. Secondly, Okur confined himself to a small dance area immediately in front of the stage, when – in this more unconventional setting – he could have easily moved around and beyond the space where the audience sat to far greater effect.

Such frustrations with the visual aspects of the concert aside, the acoustic aspects were more satisfactory. There’s a rich mellowness to the tone of La Marca’s cello playing – like a well-aged, very expensive whisky – combined with an elegant bow technique that makes the pieces seem deceptively effortless.

His performance of the entirety of Bach’s fifth cello suite – this time without a dance accompaniment – was like a masterclass in balance and élan. In the prelude you could really hear the maths underlying the music, while the allemande was beautifully poised between geometry and emotion. In the Marais variations he exhibited his more playful side, going from shimmering cascades of notes to agile staccato interludes. In the fifth variation the singing on the upper notes was so rich, it was almost like hearing a human voice.

For the second half of the evening, the highlight was Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello, with its distorted almost hallucinatory pizzicato passages alternating with sections played so lushly they could have come from the romantic era. Towards the end it became so febrile it was like being swept up in hurricane.

Yet the downfalls in the dance pairing were highlighted once more with the performance of the Love Theme from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. If you’re evoking a genius of movement like Chaplin in what – from this critic’s perspective – is his best film, then you need to create a choreography that at the very least approximates his inventiveness. Here while the movement was, once more, interesting, it was difficult to feel any kind of genuine thrill.  

Ironically it was in the last piece of the programme – Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio – that the collaboration worked best. While La Marca’s performance of the piece didn’t have the wonderful rawness of cellist Abel Selaocoe’s reworking, he captured its wildness and this was matched by the explosiveness of Okur’s choreography.

But it was too little too late, and failed to distract from the fact that this was a disappointing experience, where it was unclear whether it was the limitations of the space or a failure to explore the full potential of the idea that was at fault. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a dancer accompanied by solo cello – Jean-Guihen Queiras’ performance of all Bach’s cello suites with dancers choreographed by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker made for a memorable evening at Sadler’s Wells before lockdown. Yet this more adventurous idea delivered far less than it promised. Sadly in this current incarnation, it’s not going to kick-start a trend.

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