Ladylike (CASA Festival at Arcola Theatre)

Back to Dalston at the weekend to review a show at the CASA Festival of Latin American Arts. Ladylike soundes intriguing, a dance piece based around the use of “chick” or “hen” to describe women, and taking a variety of dance and music styles from hip-hop to rumba.

The Ella Mensa Company first creates this piece in 2015, and it has been in evolution ever since. Four female dancers take to the floor, Anna Alvarez, Azara Meghie, Hsing Ya Wu, and Lucia Afonso.

A circle of chicken food marks the area where for the next 55 minutes their movements will challenge and expose issues relating to sexual consent, cultural and gender stereotyping, and even the audience gaze.

For me, some takeaway messages aside from the incredible athleticism of the dancers on display were around how women are regarded in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Japan and close environs, and how animal behaviour can also mimic behaviours such as attack, flirtation, assault and rutting.

Meghie in particular assumes a gender fluid role, inviting aggression and assuming dominance, but in more tender passages she is the rescuer of those in peril – the shopper who reveals a weakness for rope bondage, the yellow bird who mouths “help me” to the audience.

There are queer motifs, expressions of sisterhood, moments of vulnerability as the participants dress and undress each other, shackling one into a bright Brazilian headdress here that resembles a bird of paradise, unmasking another here in a flowing yellow dress.

In the Arcola’s Studio 1 we watch these women perform under flickering lights, pulsing music, and a simple black box staging. At times they interact with audience members by locking eyes or invading personal space, at others they sit back and watch each other’s routines and stories.

Ladylike is an unusual piece of dance storytelling which retains a powerful message around the role and assent of women in the Latin one, although of course many of these messages can be read universally. By using humour to push forward an uncomfortable set of facts, this piece in fact gains rather than loses its strength.

Ladylike played at Arcola Theatre from 16-20 July. The CASA Festival 2019 continues to 27 July, with theatre and dance at the Arcola and films at the Rio Cinema.

For more details go to the CASA Festival website. Photo credits by Camilla Greenwell.