Ian Abbott on Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade’s K.R.U.M.P Macbeth at Trinity Laban

Posted: July 27th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade’s K.R.U.M.P Macbeth at Trinity Laban

Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade: K.R.U.M.P Macbeth at Trinity Laban, July 17

Oloyade

The cast in Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade’s K.R.U.M.P. Macbeth (photo: Stefano Ottaviano)

A man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than the ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions… if one has failed only where others have not had the courage or will to try, there is consolation — indeed, deep satisfaction — to be gained from his observation when looking back over one’s life.” – Kazuo Ishiguro

Riding, reworking and interpreting classic works of western literature is the default setting for a lot of UK male-led dance companies of late; Lost Dog’s Paradise Lost/Juliet & Romeo, Mark Bruce Company’s The Odyssey and Dracula, Avant Garde Dance’s Fagin’s Twist, James Wilton Dance’s Leviathan and James Cousins Company’s Rosalind are just some of the examples. Often framed as an opportunity to attract new or theatre audiences to dance, it could be seen as a smart marketing device or a poverty of original ideas. Macbeth has a particularly strong hold on current choreographic minds with Company Chordelia’s Lady Macbeth Unsex Me Here, Mark Bruce Company’s Macbeth and now K.R.U.M.P Macbeth by Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade all undertaking the Shakespearean Scottish play in the last 12 months.

At 55 minutes long with a cast of four (Amanda Pekfou, Jordan Franklin, Dean Stewart and Vincent Maduabueke) this is Oloyade’s first full-length theatrical work after spending a number of years performing with Boy Blue Entertainment, making shorter works at Breakin’ Convention as well as being an excellent exponent and teacher of krump. Whereas others may ply their trade at Resolution, building up experience in other platforms, or refining the work back in the studio Oloyade has chosen to premiere K.R.U.M.P Macbeth at Laban after an earlier showing of a few sections at Redbridge Drama Centre in May. Macbeth is a text full of hooks and angles of approach: power, murder, psychological warfare and familial tyranny. Mix this with the depth of emotion, delicate and explosive qualities and body shuddering invigoration that krump has in the cypher or battle and K.R.U.M.P Macbeth has a suite of possibilities; unfortunately it fails at nearly everything it attempts.

With no director, dramaturg or outside eye present according to the programme notes, Oloyade as choreographer is left holding responsibility for the blocking, movement and stagecraft, but his theatrical inexperience is brutally exposed with a raft of saggy scenes, continual slow movement of limbs that do not result in tension or emotional engagement, a number of moments inexplicably playing upstage left, and a stick-stabbing shadow death scene that would fit better in a 1970s schlocky horror film. The staccato nature of K.R.U.M.P Macbeth feels like a diluted version of a York Notes guide to a Chinese whisper broadcast of the original Shakespearian play. It is unrecognisable as Macbeth and Oloyade offers no alternative artistic interpretation, little depth of research/inquiry and no emotional narrative to help us feel anything towards any character.

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Choreographically Oloyade has constricted the form and at the same time constricted the work; it is full of unnecessary blockages with the dancers waiting for the obvious musical changes from Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s dominant soundtrack stretching out the movement without developing the narrative, and attempts at synchronised krump are inadequate with the stomps out at least 50% of the time. There is an uneven quality in their jabs, isolation/physical punctuation and our eyes are consistently drawn to those dancers who are unable to keep time. Mixing and/or blending krump with contemporary knee slides and fake rifle holding neither satisfies the krump purist nor brings a new choreographic vocabulary to those unfamiliar with the form; we’re left with a sticky choreographic mess that is only exacerbated when in the final scene ‘KRUMP’ is blurted out over the soundtrack offering all the subtlety of a hip hop anvil. Can you imagine a Scottish Dance Theatre soundtrack blaring ‘CONTEMPORARY DANCE’ in a climactic scene or Ballet Cymru using a ‘BALLET’ audio sting in the final moments? When the stage is bathed in red the Goddess of Blunt Instruments is making it obvious: we know what is going on.

Within the company there are dancers with individual talent and virtuosity; Maduabueke offers charged flickers of intensity whilst Stewart delivers some moments of choreographic power and complexity, but there is so little glue, context or relationship forged between them that it erases any of the possibilities.

When Oloyade presented his eight-minute work Hell’s Gate 7 at Breakin’ Convention last year there were interesting relational dynamics, power and theatrical possibilities demonstrating that he has choreographic talent, but the leap from an eight to a 55-minute work is too big. The stagecraft, direction and dramaturgy need consideration and attention if he wants to make a full-length theatrical work. Within the individual scenes of K.R.U.M.P Macbeth there are interesting shorter sections that either could be harvested and sit alone in their own right as smaller pieces or re-worked and expanded.

This is a wider issue that a lot of hip hop dance artists are facing: how to make the shift from making micro works to a full evening. There is a gap that needs filling around the 25-30 minute work that could be presented in a double bill that would enable that growth, choreographic expansion and depth of idea to be tested. Often the ego and the ambition says Yes, I can make a full-length work, but would an architect make the step from designing a conservatory to building an entire town? But perhaps Oloyade can take comfort in what Kurt Vonnegutonce wrote: “And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”


Alexandrina Hemsley and Seke Chimutengwende, Black Holes

Posted: July 1st, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Alexandrina Hemsley and Seke Chimutengwende, Black Holes

Alexandrina Hemsley and Seke Chimutengwende, Black Holes, The Place, June 21

Black Holes

Seke Chimutengwende and Alexandrina Hemsley in Black Holes (photo: Katarzyna Perlak)

How do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as a reality; I come to you as a myth. Because that’s what black people are. Myths. I came from a dream that black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a present sent to you by your ancestors.” – Sun Ra

Alexandrina Hemsley and Seke Chimutengwende are darkness newscasters exposing the black holes in white history. Black Holes is a cosmic 70-minute orbit that sees them ‘speculating on how to be with their bodies that carry histories of marginalisation and anti-blackness’ while combining ‘elements of Science Fiction and personal narrative to propel the personal and the mythic onto a cosmic scale.’

With a substantial co-authored text delivered alongside their labours, improvisations and choreography we are at once distanced by their static delivery and use of an Afrosurreal language (after D. Scot Miller’s Afrosurreal Manifesto) before being brought proximate by their lived realities of racism, persistent micro-aggressions and the all too familiar fetishization of black hair. They are sayers delivering strange news from another star; a deliberate and disturbing fleshing of ignored personal and conquered histories including Alexandrina recalling how she had her neck pinched in a jazz club in Gloucester.

I’m trying to speak to write the truth. I’m trying to be clear. I’m not interested in being fancy, or even original. Clarity and truth will be plenty, if I can only achieve them.” – Octavia. E. Butler

Arriving into the Robin Howard Dance Theatre I am unsure what we are watching with Alexandrina and Seke already on stage lit beautifully by Simeon Miller’s design that could have been plucked from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Are they the last two survivors on a space ship crashed into an unknown star? Are they interplanetary buccaneers looting the corpses of a long dead splinter cell? Or are they a pair of prophets oscillating between the portals of our world and theirs? Their physical language remains consistent throughout with Seke using his willowy spine-flicking and flashing-out limbs as he rides the score; he is all dart while Alexandrina is totally coily; internalised, groove-filled musicality roaring through her body playing between the desire for stillness and the necessity for movement.

With a set design by Rosie Elnile and Eleanor Sikorski that features afrofuturist asteroids (large, black plastic-wrapped cumbersome cuboids tied with thin chains), both performers labour deliberately, pulling these objects/histories/anchors around the stage at regular intervals leaving slow glacial pushing patterns behind; the weight of their intention and the heaviness of their labour leaves much residue on the eyes long after the 70 minutes have elapsed.

This success permits us to hope that after thirty or forty years of observation on the new Planet [Neptune], we may employ it, in its turn, for the discovery of the one following it in its order of distances from the Sun. Thus, at least, we should unhappily soon fall among bodies invisible by reason of their immense distance, but whose orbits might yet be traced in a succession of ages, with the greatest exactness, by the theory of Secular Inequalities.” – Urbain Le Verrier

Black Holes uses orbit as a mode of creation and as a means of receiving. We see and hear repeated choreographic patterns, poetic text and black light; sometimes the asteroids are downstage, sometimes clustered, sometimes circled. These movements are not invisibled by stage hands in the dark quietly making ready for the next scene; instead we see Alexandrina and Seke as the movers taking the time that time takes to place them where they want; an exercise in space and patience. Hearing repeated phrases (“It was like the bath was already empty and you take the plug out while the bathtub goes into the plughole”) and encountering familiar physicalities leaves space for other imagined and existing works that Black Holes sits alongside; Rachael Young’s Nightclubbing, Project O’s Voodoo, Reni-Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race and Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm‘s Br’er Cotton.

Lacking any real sci-fi weight (Seke revealed in the post-show conversation that their writing process brought a number of Google-lite searches picking out language from Octavia E. Butler, Brian Cox and Sun-Ra etc. that they remixed and respliced with their own words), Black Holes successfully creates language runs that act as the Sun to the smaller choreographic planetary interventions and would suit a radio/streaming audience in their own right. In contrast to the rising tide of people of colour looking at Afrofuturism and untold/deleted histories, we are still awash in the saturated presence of abstract work that exists solely in the black hole of many white male egos jumping on the science/space/technology bandwagon in order to fill their choreographic deficiencies; Black Holes has more integrity, offers a place for stimulation and reflection and leaves a valuable indentation in head, heart and space.


Ian Abbott on the 2018 Birmingham International Dance Festival

Posted: June 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on the 2018 Birmingham International Dance Festival

Birmingham International Dance Festival, June 7 – 15

BIDF18

Becky Namgaud’s Rodadoras at BIDF18 (photo: Ian Abbott)

Settling into the cultural nooks and crannies of Brum over three weeks in June, Birmingham International Dance Festival — BIDF18 — returned to the city for a sixth edition under a new Midlands Dance united artistic leadership: Lucie Mirkova (interim artistic director) and Paul Russ (associate artistic director and CEO of Dance4). With the festival taking over a reduced sized Victoria Square (due to tram engineering works) the festival hub, stage, installations and refreshment trucks offered an outdoor base for the first ten days book-ended by two celebratory and free programs of work alongside some canny week-day programming (lunch and after work time slots) to attract city dwellers to encounter dance.

I will leave the suite of indoor work across the three weeks — Atomos by Company Wayne McGregor, Elements of Freestyle by ISH Dance Collective, Wasp by Rui Horta, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s studio program Polarity & Proximity and New Creation by Cecilia Bengolea and Florentina Holzinger — to other critical voices and focus instead on the work presented outdoors as there is often less written about work for this context. The only exception I’m making is to include the indoor performance of Kallo Collective’sOnly Bones v1.0.

Soil exists in a state of permanent duality; it represents a place of growth and fertility whilst it can also become a barren wasteland and the place where bodies are buried. Becky Namgaud’s Rodadoras takes Mexican femicide as its starting point, a brutal bodily trauma that dozens of Mexican women are still encountering every day. Rodadoras is a dance of the dead that has choreographic echoes of Damien Jalet’s Yama for Scottish Dance Theatre. We see a trio of dancers settled in a shallow soil pit, the bodies slowly vibrating into frenzied states of inbetweenness kicking up dirt and spraying those in the front row with the stuff of life and death. They slither above ground and undeaden themselves to reveal sullied limbs, torso and heads of hair but never faces. At 20 minutes long two of the dancers visibly tire in the third quarter as the strain and energy-sapping soil claims yet more bodies; however Namgaud has created a suite of haunting images on a delicate subject that unsettles and challenges the traditional outdoor arts festival content.

Infinite Womanhood is a collaboration between Vanhulle Dance Theatre and tabla player Mendi Mohinder. Laura Vanhulle is an exquisite technician; her lines are full, wholesome and delivered with zip. Her relationship with Mohinder is also a treat to experience as they walk and blur the musical line of who is leading and who is responding. Each accentuates and amplifies the other’s work with beats, physical punctuation and lashings of precision. Vanhulle uses a cushion to symbolize multiple female roles and identities that morph from baby to mop to mirror but she flashes over them in a suite of mimetic actions which underwhelms and feels dramaturgically thin; each one needs more room to expand, land and let us reflect on what she is trying to say. Mendi and Vanhulle’s execution and charisma just about paper over the conceptual cracks and ensure the 16 minutes fly by leaving me wanting to see more of them both.

On the international program of outdoor work on June 9, Roll Up, Roll Up harkens back to the classic hatting street/circus performers who have the ability to keep holding an attention, drip feeding trick after trick drawing out the maximum length of time to stop an audience from walking away. Although it contains very little dance it offers oodles of individual circus tricks, crowd-pleasing skills on the cyr wheel, juggling and a lot of audience interaction. Kieran Warner and Christopher Thomas of Simple Cypher have constructed an increasingly difficult juggling routine ending up with a 5 ball sequence dropping and feeding balls above and below creating unexpected rhythms and patterns; this is followed by a similar pattern on the cyr wheel resulting in a number of one handed holds with legs knitted frozen at unexpected angles ensuring mass applause. Simple Cypher know how to squeeze the juice out of every moment and Roll Up, Roll Up generates the longest and loudest applause on the Saturday program demonstrating that sometimes an outdoor audience just wants to be entertained.

Nottingham was the birthplace and playground of Torvil and Dean’s gold medal-winning ice dance routine and in remixing the Midlands heritage, BIDF18 presented the UK premiere of Bolero by Jesus Rubio Gamo. Set against an 18-minute extended remix of the iconic music by Ravel the two dancers set about a playful and repetitive feat of increasing physical exertion bringing unexpected partner lifts, rolls, skips, hops, holds and step patterns to a point of pleasure and exhaustion. Covering the stage like an ice rink, with barely a heel touching the floor and playing to all three sides of the increasingly buoyed audience we see both performers acknowledging their exhaustion and inviting the crowd to support them. Bolero could suit an extended and durational three-hour encounter as we would see the body begin to genuinely deteriorate as muscles begin to collapse, lactic acid hardens and lungs begin to burst; instead what we have is a delicate 20-minute sliver presented on fast forward and executed to perfection. Consider Bolero as your friendly neighbourhood introduction to outdoor endurance performance.

As the lead festival image and driver of the social media hype, Didier Theron’s AIR & La Grande Phrase introduces his bouncing pink men to an avalanche of attention as they anarchically ambled, scrambled and rambled their way around unsuspecting shops, art galleries and iconic city centre landmarks filling camera rolls wherever they went. The pink suits (complete with an internal air filled inner tube) offered a range of inflatable choreographic possibilities that deceived the eye and played with perception: when they pliéd they shrank to an almost unfathomable height. Mixing deadpan audience interaction, running at speed up to and into the audience, leaning in and asking the crowd to bear their weight before nonchalantly wandering off and twocing a pram (and baby) generated consistent audience smiles. What looks like a simple improvisation with their environment and audiences in a funny costume is actually a raft of performance intelligence derived from dozens of performances, unexpected encounters and testing the boundaries of what an audience will accept. Since the work first premiered in 2013 Theron has brought his pink joy to cities across the world and Birmingham will not forget the bouncing pink men anytime soon.

Choreographed by Caroline Bowditch for Candoco Dance Company, Dedicated To is a solemn duet performed by Victoria Fox and Welly O’Brien that presents an entirely different energy and necessitates a different quality of attention. Set on two benches and referencing the death plaques you find on benches overlooking a favourite haunt, beach or viewpoint, Dedicated To creates a space for reflection and contemplation with intimate partner lifts, lakes of stillness and echoes of an invisible past. Although it is pleasant enough and Fox and O’Brien clearly embody a consistent performance tone, it stands out against the wider program of outdoor events as meandering and its plateau of interest brings the energy of the crowd down. This internalised focus would be more suited to a small-scale theatre where distractions are muted or to a curated outdoor program that doesn’t veer wildly from fizzing pink to rainbow bright to sludgey brown to polka dot tartan.

Kallo Collective’s Only Bones was the only indoor performance I saw (the second performance of Guide by Věra Ondrašíková & Collective I was booked to see was cancelled with less than 24 hours notice due to low ticket sales). Only Bones is a 45-minute whistle stop solo clown frenzy performed under a lampshade by Thom Monckton as a sketch show that rattled through dozens of physical skits displaying the dexterity and extremity of every part of Monckton’s body. With little room to rest or reset Monckton drew attention to a scab-picking finger duet like The Addams Family’s Thing, to a jelly neck lolling about and unable to hold the weight of his head, to a kneecap and Adam’s Apple isolation micro-solo that twitched, twerked and pulsed to the beat-glitching soundtrack. Monckton is an accomplished and highly watchable wordless performer with a suite of waving and popping skills that underpin his comedic clowning; using Mr. Bean-like noises to emphasize and punctuate his anatomical isolation he had the audience hollering with laughter.

Sitting through the entire day of outdoor work the tone was wild and it was hard to find a through line if indeed there was one.  Maybe there was an internal expectation that a transient audience might only stay and engage for a single show as they follow the noises and discover the program while traversing the city rather than planning the day and investing in the entire program. Mix this with the often 10 to 30-minute gap between performances which dissolved any momentum or reason to stay in that area then audiences chose to leave and spend their time elsewhere. BIDF18 was in reality a selection of performances and not a festival; a festival needs glue, reasons to stay, socialise and lose yourself for a while. I haven’t even mentioned 2Faced Dance’s Moon, a dance and circus work for families with integrated Audio Description and British Sign Language or the irritating wastrels of Gravitas by Ofir Yudilevitch who inflated a mattress and bounced on it like children on a settee.

BIDF18 definitely felt different to the previous David Massingham-flavoured editions; there were less original mass spectacles although it felt like there were more artists that were new to the city. It is clearly a festival in transition which may have offered a glimpse towards a Midlands United future or has cleared the path for a new voice (imagine an artist-curated model of BIDF like Meltdown) to prepare the 2020 edition


The British Paraorchestra and Friends, The Nature of Why at Bristol Old Vic

Posted: May 22nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The British Paraorchestra and Friends, The Nature of Why at Bristol Old Vic

The British Paraorchestra and Friends, The Nature of Why, Bristol Old Vic, May 12

The Nature of Why

The Nature of Why (photo: Paul Blakemore)

Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” – Richard Feynman

Set amongst the giddy theatrical delights of Mayfest is the world premiere of The Nature of Why by The British Paraorchestra and Friends; a physics-crunching, joyous, 70-minute musical adventure on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic. Commissioned by Unlimited it features a new score from Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, choreography and co-direction from Caroline Bowditch and is conducted and co-directed by Charles Hazlewood. The Nature of Why is framed by The British Paraorchestra as ‘merging dance and live music into an epic performance that brims with emotion and physical beauty…it takes inspiration from the unconventional curiosity of Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, and his search for meaning in the world around us. The Nature of Why promises to be an up-close-and-personal dance experience like no other.’

The choreography embellishes the idea of a magnet and how it attracts or repulses bodies, not only between the dancers but also in their intermingling with the audience which leaves a playful and non-threatening level of interaction in its wake: The Nature of Why revels in the intimacy and connections it forges between the audience and performers. Before we enter the auditorium there is a clear invitation from Bowditch and Hazlewood that viewing and altering our perspective is welcome and will create different sonic and visual opportunities for us. Set across nine distinct orchestral movements, audience members are invited to move in and around the stage in between the clearly defined sections whilst a pre-recorded conversation from Feynman talks about magnets and why; watching the dancers (KJ Clarke-Davies, Victoria Fox, Marta Masiero and Alex McCabe) twine, mesh and envelop themselves around each other and audience members or standing next to Adrian Lee as he shreds his electric guitar whilst the 10-piece string orchestra is dialing up the intensity four feet behind you is a rare privilege.

The body is an instrument which only gives off music when it is used as a body. Always an orchestra, and just as music traverses walls, so sensuality traverses the body and reaches up to ecstasy.” – Anais Nin

The British Paraorchestra is the world’s only large-scale ensemble for disabled musicians and Gregory’s rousing and anthemic score is executed with aplomb. It delivers a musical environment that enables the dancers to dig into and under their innate fibrous musicality; Masiero demonstrates an ease in playing and improvising with the young children in the audience who are present in the matinee performance. Gregory’s score, whilst fulfilling the needs of the performers, also leaves a residue of sonic satisfaction with the audience that left my body moving and pulsing with an emotional connection amplified by the intimacy created by the performers.

Bowditch and Hazlewood highlight that Audio Description (provided by Rationale Productions) is available for each performance and you can take up the invitation if you want. It is wise to do so as the voice and performance of the live audio describer adds an additional layer to the performance which reinforces the choices and intention of the creative team; the joy and tone in hearing a smiling voice subjectively describe abstract choreography in plain English is both a challenge and a delight. When a dancer merges with a double bass and is wheelbarrowed across the stage I close my eyes listening to the audio voice, the score and the reaction of the audience. Rationale Productions are doing some pioneering work with Audio Description and it is clear they are woven into the creation process from the beginning; the integrity of, and familiarity with all parts of the production delivers a level of performance equal to those on stage.

My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.” – Fernando Pessoa

The Nature of Why has a number of scenographic and thematic echoes from two recent productions: Marc Brew Company’s BrewBand (in which Masiero and McCabe featured prominently) fluidly exchanges the roles of dancer and musician and blurs the roles of each skill set, and Claire Cunningham’s and Jess Curtis’s The Way You Look (at me) Tonight which brought the audience on stage, had a depth of intimacy and asked a suite of complex philosophical questions. Bowditch, Cunningham and Brew are a trio of dance makers who have spent a number of years in Scotland forging a reputation for delivering ambitious and emotionally resonant work; with Brew’s departure to Oakland as Artistic Director of Axis Dance (USA) and Bowditch’s forthcoming appointment as Executive Director of Arts Access Victoria (AUS), it leaves Cunningham as the last of the trinity in Glasgow and Scotland, choreographically, a poorer place.

As a wider Mayfest observation, MAYK (co-directed by Matthew Austin and Kate Yedigaroff) have trusted and amplified a significant suite of makers from Bristol; that investment in the people based in the city is exemplary and an antidote to the majority of other UK-based theatre, dance and performance festivals that buy in work from out of town much to the detriment of the artists in their own city. Alongside The British Paraorchestra, there were works from Verity Standen, Sabrina Shirazi, Caroline Williams and Hannah Sullivan.

For a work with so many collaborators, constituent parts and a roving audience, The Nature of Why is a remarkably coherent experience; it creates a space where people can feel comfortable and connected to others, nourishes our ears, bodies and minds whilst nestling itself in the cracks of our memories as we leave the stage in high spirits.


Ian Abbott on Aerowaves, Spring Forward 2018 in Sofia

Posted: March 30th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Aerowaves, Spring Forward 2018 in Sofia

Ian Abbott on Aerowaves, Spring Forward 2018, Sofia, March 23-25

Forecasting

Barbara Matijevic and MacBook in Forecasting (photo: Yelena Remetin)

Spring Forward 2018 is a flipbook of European contemporary dance; 22 performances selected from over 580 applications from 40 countries and squashed into 2.5 days. It would have been 22 performances but for Oona Doherty’s last minute injury which put an end, for the second year running, to her performance of Hope Hunt (the one UK representation). Directed by John Ashford and managed by Anna Arthur, the Aerowaves network is an ever growing set of programmers, artists and writers injected each year into a different European city for three days with the help of a local delivery partner. Derida Dance Centre played host this time and offered a wealth of local knowledge, volunteers, walking guides and oodles more to ensure a smooth-ish international parachuting.

One of the benefits/disadvantages of the Aerowaves format is that all work programmed has to be between 20 to 40 minutes (even if the original work is longer) which requires judicious pruning to ensure the heart of a work remains intact but removes any flab for the gluttonous Spring Forward crowd. The viewing pace is also accelerated; seeing 5 or 6 pieces a day at the Edinburgh Fringe was frenzy enough but at Spring Forward you’re seeing 21 works in 52 hours — one piece of contemporary dance every 2.5 hours — which affects how you see, how you process and how you articulate a response to each work.

Rita Gobi’s Volitant is a tightly constructed and deftly articulated solo with a choreographic vocabulary that is part ornithological, part sumo and part wrought spring. With a taped floor pattern of an arrow head of parallel white lines, our eyes are drawn to the points of tension in Gobi’s shoulders, cheeks and knees; it’s a contagious state amplified by the Morse code-, typewriter- and pong-inspired soundtrack by Dávid Szegő that accentuates her physical punctuation and treacle netball heel pivots. With a sympathetic monochromatic lighting design by Pavla Beranová emphasising the clarity of her movement through silhouette Gobi is an exquisite performer with the ability to build and choreograph a minimalist landscape worthy of greater attention.

Imagine a slug. Imagine a giant black rumbling slug. Imagine a giant black rumbling choreographic slug that can suck up, swallow and spit out naked humans at will. Welcome to Pietro Marullo’s WRECK from Insiemi Ireeali Company, an ambitious 40-minute scenography with a flawed narrative that could have dropped straight out of The Prisoner. With a huge black inflatable pillow taking the role of the Big Slug we watch it ooze and blob from side to side, rising up to demonstrate its power and mark its territory without any visible human intervention. After five minutes we are surprised to see it burp up a naked human who remains motionless in its slimy wake; the premise accrues over the next 10 minutes with naked bodies in solo, duo, trio and up to quartet being hoovered and deposited across the stage to an electronic noise glitch pulsing soundtrack. And then a switch occurs. The bodies, previously stilled, have thawed and begin to run, circle and cower in the path of Big Slug. At which point the narrative bottom falls out of the work. I almost believed we were being presented with a new terrain, a sci-fi otherness when suddenly it’s the tiny wizard curtain behind the curtain from The Wizard of Oz and we see it being manipulated for the remaining 15 minutes by a sixth naked body. Big Slug isn’t real. The bodies aren’t really being eaten, digested and reborn; it’s just an inflatable pillow wafting around the stage and audience with some naked performers. With interest waning I’m left soaked in disappointment in the possibilities that might have been.

Forecasting by Premiere Stratagème is intelligent, funny and conceptually rich; it responds to the increasing mass of YouTube content and society’s need to upload and document every facet of our lives. Performed by Barbara Matijevic the work begins with a Macbook Pro on stage alone on a metre high stand when a classic YouTube video of how to change your battery on your Macbook begins and Matijevic enters. Over the next 40 minutes Matijevic strategically places her hands, torso, face and other anatomies behind/around the Macbook over dozens of short videos so that it looks like she is, in turn, preparing a meal, indulging in a spot of toe sucking, having her face dog licked or firing dozens of rounds from a pistol. The skits trigger an almost constant laughter as she plays with perspective, inverts expected scenarios and uses her own body to echo and amplify the screen content; full body recoil after firing and suggestive eye rolls and raised eyebrows during the toe sucking demonstrates an accuracy and formidable control of her body. Sat alongside the suggested narratives and sweet jump cuts in the video (edited by Giuseppe Chico) Matijevic’s deadpan delivery ensures that Forecasting has a wide resonance with audience and the potential for a multiple cast expansion.

Like any festival or venue programme there are works that connect with an audience and those that don’t; a number of Spring Forward veterans felt two thirds of this 8th edition programme misfired and was one of the poorest in recent memory. It was no secret that  seeing Mathis Kleinschnittger in “Grrr, I’m Dancing”, where he rolls around the floor clutching three teddy bears, had caused a dozen French programmers to walk out the theatre and slam the door nosily behind them. As a Spring Forward first timer I can only respond to the work presented and would agree that 2018 was not a vintage program.

I could talk about the tired clichés of the two cis hetero male/female duets Rehearsal On Love and F63.9 from Finland and Bulgaria respectively, both choreographed by men and ‘exploring’ domestic violence in relationships. Or I could talk about Jordan Deschamps’ numbing and glacial ‘exploration’ of intimacy in the male sauna, Dédale, with four nude men flopping about under an orange street light. Or I could talk about the much-hyped Opus by Christos Papadopoulos of Leon & the Wolf that offered four dancers as human instruments articulating their body to the score and cadences of the string soundtrack. However when half the cast do not have the ability to pop, punctuate or articulate a movement it undermines the essence of the show and demonstrates poor casting, rehearsal and direction.

Spring Forward’s primary purpose (aside from brutal scheduling and presentation of dance) is as an international pollinator; it is the conversations and dialogue that manifest on the long walks between the venues that genuine exchange occurs. The value of people offering alternative perspectives on work, on ecologies in other countries and on choreographic possibilities for the future is rich and ensures that despite the misfiring class of 2018 people will return because bees need pollen and Spring Forward is a garden with a lot of flowers in it.


Project O, Voodoo at The Art School, Glasgow

Posted: March 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Project O, Voodoo at The Art School, Glasgow

Project O, Voodoo, The Art School, Glasgow, March 7

Project O Voodoo

Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley in Voodoo (photo: Project O)

You have been having our rights so long, that you think, like a slave-holder, that you own us. I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife. It will feel all the better when it closes up again.” – Sojourner Truth

We… wait. We are…wait. We are ready…wait. We are ready for…wait. We are ready for you… wait.
Voodoo has a staged and staccato arrival with entry permitted in groups of five at a time. We are paused in the lobby, paused again midway up a staircase, paused again at the door to deposit all our time-keeping devices in a sealed black envelope and only then allowed to enter the performance arena. This is an example of power; power to disrupt and power to alter experience.

Project O is a collaboration between Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small and this is some of the text they offer on their website about the work: ‘Two brown women dance a dance to dance themselves out of the desire for and expectation of an aesthetic assimilation that upholds a system of white supremacy that is at once subtle, blatant and all pervasive. A dance as cartography, Project O map the movement of their memories and the gaps in their knowledge of what went on before, those histories that are repeatedly erased by being unspoken. Training their bodies to fall through time, communing with ghosts, conjuring new futures and describing a misremembered past, this dance is an ode to the present…Voodoo asks you to pay your respects, make peace with your dead and ours, lay down your defences and dance.’

As the audience enter and take their places on the benches or the floor, what looks like the end titles of a film — a continual projection of scrolling text — cites historical and contemporary examples of racism, control and power: when cocaine was removed from Coca Cola (1901), when Rosa Parks refused to switch seats (1955), when the Henry Ford Foundation purchased that same bus #2857 (2001), alongside incidents that Hemsley and Johnson-Small have encountered too.

As we are faced towards the projection Hemsley and Johnson-Small are static, seated on a raised stage about 20 metres away at the back of the room each with a pair of reflective sunglasses facing us. They are glacial. We have to crane our necks to turn and see them up high under a double spot as they watch us, their subjects, motionless. I could watch them like this all night.

Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” – Toni Morrison

Voodoo is a durational event in either three or four 2-hour performance cycles for which you purchase a ticket for a single two-hour timed entry; my slot is the second wave of the evening which has BSL interpretation from Amy Cheskin. With the haze mounting a seated Cheskin starts interpreting the lyrics to Nina Simone’s Feeling Good (and later to Whitney Houstoun) with gumption and delicious emotional flourishes as Hemsley and Johnson-Small begin their first journey — to a pair of white cotton body bags in which they encase themselves and return to a motionless state; until their bodies are dragged into the centre of the space by a number of assistants who were responsible for our initial entrances. When we deposited our time-keeping devices we were being asked to erase our own time and enter into Project O’s rulespace where they enforce gaps, pauses, instructions and make us wait — an exercise in play and power.

Dragging and slamming bin bags of bones as they scatter across the runway, my memories of their movement is a language that belongs in the social dance and party scene; responsive limbs echoing the intricacies of the hip hop and bashment lines on the soundtrack. Remnants of bones are everywhere (designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Charley Fone), threaded on thin wires overhead like an oversized guitar neck and running the length of the 15-metre space alongside singular panels at floor level; we are dancing in a sea of bones. Hemsley and Johnson-Small howl into the bodies of some audience members, uninvited but gentle touches with their mouths breathing and moaning into the bodies of others. The transference of energies begin.

It’s not about supplication, it’s about power. It’s not about asking, it’s about demanding. It’s not about convincing those who are currently in power, it’s about changing the very face of power itself.” – Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

For me the focus of Voodoo isn’t so much about what Hemsley and Johnson-Small do, what they present, how they dance and what they offer; it is about the audience and how we react to their provocation, to their power and to the aggregation of own experience. With pre-recorded instructions they control us as a mass, herding us around the space like sheep; “take off your shoes”, “lie down” “let it rise”. There is a clear delineation between solo/collective audience and performer; there are no instructions to build energies between us. We are focussed on our own bodies and on those of Hemsley and Johnson-Small; we are building a relationship between them and us. The second half of the cycle shifts the focus inward even further as it morphs into a club night where we can dance for ourselves, no longer watching others, and begin to “let it rise” in our bodies. There is an unresolved tension between the instructions, the control and our release. The patterned beats and the predictability of the music choices offers a crutch for the audience as we exist on a participatory spectrum from internalised sonic ecstasy to self-removed wallflower awkwardness to average floppy-limbed wedding dance as ankles tap side to side not knowing how to control and let the body respond to the possibilities that the music provides. We are left amongst the tension and power crackles throughout. We begin to see a consistency of invitation, but are we here for complicity or confrontation?


Lost Dog, Juliet & Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage

Posted: March 5th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Lost Dog, Juliet & Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage

Lost Dog, Juliet & Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage, February 19, Battersea Arts Centre

Juliet & Romeo

Ben Duke and Solène Weinachter in Juliet & Romeo (photo: Jane Hobson)

Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.” – Anais Nin

Juliet & Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage is the latest 70 minute work from the pen and body of Lost Dog’s Ben Duke who frames the work as what he calls the real story of Romeo and Juliet. ‘It turns out they didn’t die in a tragic misunderstanding, they grew up and lived happily ever after. Well they lived at least. Now they’re 40ish, at least one of them is in the grips of a mid-life crisis, they feel constantly mocked by their teenage selves and haunted by the pressures of being the poster couple for romantic love. They have decided to confront their current struggles by putting on a performance – about themselves.’

The premise is a canny piece of audience and marketing catnip; a well-known play that has been presented and adapted hundreds of times on stage, film and in literature and is familiar to almost any audience. Duke offers a gentle shake of the original premise so the central relationship between Juliet and Romeo is extended a couple of decades and they’re now undergoing marriage therapy and their relationship is on the verge of dissolving.

And by the way, everything in life is writeable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” – Sylvia Plath

In his previous work, the award-winning Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me), Duke played a self-doubting, literary, anxious yet loveable Hugh Grant bumbler and it feels as if he has resuscitated the same character for his Romeo opposite the luminescent presence of Solène Weinachter as Juliet. The traversing of characters across choreographic landscapes is a recognised technique in Duke’s Lost Dog land. In his It Needs Horses, which won The Place Prize in 2011, the circus artist character of Anna Finkel was reprised in the subsequent Home For Broken Turns as one of five women (another being Weinachter). Seeing a character in a new environment but with a sense of familiarity is a neat dramaturgical device. It is as if in Juliet & Romeo Duke is suggesting we look back at Paradise Lost through the eyes of a 43-year-old Romeo.

Played in episodic flashbacks Duke and Weinachter offer us a number of theatrical and spoken memories in solo and duo, where they invite us (and each other) to look again at romantic encounters, painful moments and sliding doors that have led them to this fractured and tired state. Nestled alongside the memories are nine or ten identifiable pieces of music (from Desiree’s I’m Kissing You in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo and Juliet to Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence to Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights) which offer opportunities for the more formal moments of choreographic input as we see Duke’s performed awkwardness come to the fore. Giving form to an initial courtship groin thrust or to the clasping and anguished rotation of the limp body of Juliet, Duke is a master of narrative delivery.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” – Robert Frost

With his theatrical, literary and choreographic background, Duke has been honing a style of delivery and output that suits his strengths and masks his weaknesses; when he introduces a new presence into his world there is a delicate line to tread in making that person look as strong or comfortable as he does. After shining brightly in two recent works (The North and Plan B For Utopia) by Joan Clevillé Dance, Weinachter has a tricksy time in out-dukeing Duke as the sympathy is almost always skewed towards his anxious male character rather than to the stronger female. Weinachter delivers everything that is asked of her but the production’s sensitivity levels could be tweaked to offer a more satisfying, non-patriarchal dominance.

Despite this imbalance, Duke appears quite at ease in his theatrical craft — his performance, conception and writing are excellent — but there is not enough choreographic sustenance to hold Juliet & Romeo together and the choice of musical numbers is on the light side. The instant recognition of the first three seconds of each track generates a slight titter that soon dissipates and as the scenes of physicality play out I began to switch off; the directorial spoon feels uncomfortably close to crashing against the teeth and offers just too little nourishment. Like the relationship it describes, Juliet & Romeo’s strengths are not sufficient to resolve its inherent weaknesses and its promise dies before its time.


Theo Clinkard, This Bright Field

Posted: January 2nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Theo Clinkard, This Bright Field

Theo Clinkard, This Bright Field, Tramway, Glasgow, October 13

The dancers in Theo Clinkard’s This Bright Field (photo: Pari Naderi)

I once read in my physics book that the universe begs to be observed, that energy travels and transfers when people pay attention.” – Jasmine Warga

I’ve written this in two parts; my first set of words were noted down soon after seeing Theo Clinkard’s This Bright Field at Tramway, capturing the intensity of feeling on the performance night and then again 10 weeks later, at a distance to the work, seeing what residue remains with me.

This Bright Field is in itself a work in two parts running consecutively but with a small break in between that invites us to consider proximity, scale and experiences of togetherness. Following two international commissions from Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, it offers the audience a chance to see how Clinkard (with artistic collaborator Leah Marojevic) crafts a large-scale work with a company of his own dancers. In The Listening Room, the piece he choreographed on the 24 dancers of Danza Cuba last year, Clinkard demonstrated a rare ability that profiled the individuality of the dancers whilst creating a conceptually satisfying choreographic approach with a performance rigour on a large scale. What would Clinkard do with dancers of his own choosing with a longer creation and rehearsal process? Part 1 of This Bright Field is an intimate, 15-minute interaction on stage seeing (and not seeing) the dancers up close and in the round; Part 2 is back in the orthodox seating bank for a 60-minute formal presentation.

In the comprehensively informative written program Clinkard offers the following:
“What are the inherent politics of theatre spaces? What kind of spectatorship do they encourage in you, the audience? Mindful that scale and proximity to the action affect our sense of self, the way we relate to others and the way we receive a performance, I decided to re-orientate the audience-performer relationship to provide you with two distinct perspectives in the hope of refreshing your experience of dancing and dancers in larger theatres.” And Marojevic adds: “Throughout his body of work, the invite for audiences remains the same; to come as you are, to be within yourself, within time, experiencing quality, surprise, colour and ambience; to receive the work through your own history by engaging your present senses.”

There is warmth generated through the ability to see all four sides of a work and all four sides of a dancer; a 15-minute amuse-bouche continues the Clinkardesque trope from Of Land and Tongue of letting the dancers in his company reveal themselves, connect with the audience and have a number of delightful interactions framed by choreographic tasks. Here the dancers have agency to fill and flourish in their own rhythm, intimacy and moments of exchange with the audience; here is the Clinkard I expected.

Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” – Tom Stoppard

How does a choreographer change scale? Clinkard brings us close in Part 1 and then pushes us away in Part 2. It feels even more distancing as we had a taste of the intimacy that was possible, but with 12 dancers on a large stage for a small audience (limited by a maximum of three slots of 100 people each in Part 1) this tension between proximity and scale leaves me unsettled. With over 500 entrances and exits in Part 2, running, rolling and lurching upstage, the dancers exist in a constant state of leaving and never staying; this disruption dilutes any sense of connection or extended presence that might have been forged with the dancers from Part 1. It is to be applauded that Clinkard is attempting to invert the staid practices of large-scale dance, but the gap of 25 minutes between the end of Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2 ensures any momentum and intimacy that was built has dissolved by the time we get back to the auditorium.

Ten weeks later, the work has faded slightly. Alongside the eruption of white noise and percussion from composer and performer James Keane, the bright white field backdrop, white flooring and the impact of teal waves of the dancers flooding from downstage to upstage in their glacial staccato roles has disappeared. There are flaws and there are holes in memory and then there is Steph McMann (at seven months pregnant) and Leah Marojevic who exercise their innate watchability in a sitting duet with intimate gestures, unfurling wrists and torso shifts. Together they conjure up a magnetism via a suite of mundane gestures whilst the waves of bodies wash, run and make visual noise behind them.

Clinkard has brought together distinguished collaborators including the lighting designer Guy Hoare who offers a sensuality of multiple light baths in dialogue with the dancers, bathing them in an eight-parcan stage-left wash that subtly creates visual texture and emotion, drawing our focus closer to the nude form of Marojevic as she rediscovers the possibility of her body and sinews. There are echoes in Part 1 of Clinkard’s earlier piece Ordinary Courage with the softbox lighting heightening the intimacy levels by bringing the sky down closer. Within the construction of Part 2 there are multiple parts which vibrate in isolation and fail to listen to each other; I find I’m looking for glue and left with multiple questions. Why this order? How do the multiple parts belong together? What are the feelings that were close and are now distant? Clinkard is dealing with us in temperature — embracing us in warmth before moving to tepid then to a cryogenic icy distance and then back to cool. There are multiple works and multiple feelings in play within This Bright Field but I left on the night feeling unsure but bombarded by brightness; on reflection the dazzle has dimmed considerably and I’m left thinking of other works of his which shone a lot brighter.

The poetic image […] is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of any image, the distant past resounds with echoes.” – Gaston Bachelard

 

Here’s another review of This Bright Field


H2Dance, Strangers & Others

Posted: January 2nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on H2Dance, Strangers & Others

H2Dance, Strangers & Others, iC4C, Nottingham, 2nd December 2017

H2Dance with Strangers & Others

H2Dance with Strangers & Others (photo: Benedict Johnson)

Sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that? Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If I am not a stranger, then I must be other. I have developed an alternative relationship with the latest work, Strangers & Others, of H2Dance (Heidi Rustgaard and Hanna Gillgren) by working as their writer-in-residence, talking to people at three of their tour dates (Colchester, Peterborough and Nottingham) to gauge and document their reactions to the work. H2Dance have described their intention for this work, which has only participants and no seated audience, in these terms: “Invited to look, touch, assume and judge, audiences choose how to respond, placing themselves into lines, groups and pairs. Witnessed only by the choreographers, they use appearance, physicality and behaviour as a guide to negotiate each other as they cooperate in silence.”

As writer-in-residence my interaction was solely with the audience before and after their participation in Strangers & Others, listening to them describe in detail the parts of that resonated with them. While this meant that all surprise was erased when I entered the studio at iC4C as one of the participants in the last performance on the last date of the Autumn 2017, this erasure enabled me to create a mechanical and objective plot of what happens in the studio over the course of 80 minutes but left me space to inhabit the incoming interactions without the emotional distraction of surprise.

As the gathering of 20 people begins in the foyer we are invited to wear Silent Discoesque headphones; I notice that some wearers have blue lights and some red on their headphones. I begin to think about the idea of a stranger and things that are strange to us. Strangers & Others is a stranger to me, to the collective us and we (as a body of people) are strange to each other. The word stranger has a history and resonance in the UK that is forged in childhood; we are told to not trust strangers, to question their intentions and reject any attempt at interaction. Its etymology suggests an “unknown person, foreigner” derived from the Old French estrangier. As a form of address to an unknown person, it is recorded from 1817, and has a meaning of “one who has stopped visiting” first recorded in the 1520s.

Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” Malcolm X

H2Dance invite us to construct a social choreography; we are architects of our own awkwardness through a set of solo, duet and group instructions offered through the headphones. A slow desensitisation occurs and as the instructions escalate we begin to un-strange each other whilst acclimatising to the rhythm of the work. Starting with “notice the space”, progressing to “take the hand of someone who is your equal” and finishing with “rub the bum of the person opposite” the voices of Rustgaard (my ear instructor) and Gillgren offer little inflexion, emotion or judgement and are the conductors of an ever-decreasing sense of erasure of our personal boundaries. If this is what happens after 80 minutes, imagine where an audience might be persuaded to go after 3hrs hour or half a day. It’s a choreographic alternative to Milgram social psychology experiments, a study which measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. How persuadeable are we? Here we are offered no reward but continue to be subservient to those voices in our ears.

Nestled in the stiffness of some of the bodies in the room a sense of childhood stranger scepticism lingers; the interactive and participative nature of Strangers & Others makes for an interesting combination as it is full of the childlike and playful possibilities which forge bonds, create gangs through awkward physical encounters. We continue to revisit each other. Encounters with those who are unknown to us as we get older can be equally fraught; the currency and resonance of #MeToo with the recent exposure of intimidation, sexual abuse and rape of women and men at the behest of those exercising their power is clearly present. H2Dance are whispering in our ear with an invitation to “stand next to someone you find sexy” and later on “point to the person you think is sexist” followed by “stroke the cheek of the person” and “put your hands on the chest of the person opposite”. It leaves you in a moral quandary — do I participate (as everyone else seems to be doing) or do I remove myself (as I’m uncomfortable with what is being asked of me)?

Strangers & Others deals in power, invitation and suggestion with Rustgaard and Gillgren having created a tightly crafted work that leaves your moral compass askew and lingers long in the mind after leaving the studio. Although we are told at the beginning that “any response is valid” this phrase is not repeated or emphasised; amongst the sensorial and social input of making judgements on people does this crucial phrase settle into the mind? Can we reject what is being asked of us? We are asked to consider a spectrum of: trust, class, privilege, income, homophobia, racism, age, sexuality and foreignness based entirely on sight, smell and touch. When we exit the space (one by one) we are greeted by a glass of prosecco and a new invitation; a chance to decompress the previous 80 minutes and to verbalise all that has gone before; we are no longer strange, we are now other.

There is an odd synchronicity in the way parallel lives veer to touch one another, change direction, and then come close again and again until they connect and hold for whatever it was that fate intended to happen.” Ann Rule


Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi (AΦE), WHIST

Posted: August 9th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi (AΦE), WHIST

AΦE, WHIST, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, July 31

WHIST, by AΦE (photo: Paul Plews)

Good stories are like those noble wild animals that make their home in hidden spots, and you must often settle down at the entrance of the caves and woods and lie in wait for them a long time.” – Herman Hesse

WHIST is the first major work for Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi who formed the company AΦE in 2013. Inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud, it invites us on a journey exploring the fears, desires and unconscious minds of a fictional family. Wearing a Samsung Gear virtual reality (VR) headset and headphones this is a solo experience (for a maximum of 20 people at a time) in the carpeted third-floor foyer of the Festival Theatre. After a pre-show briefing and orientation by the FOH staff we are invited to put on the headset and headphones and to follow the early instructions for triggering scenes by lining up our gaze with a small blue dot.
It’s made clear that there are 76 different perspectives and that who/what/where we look at when we’re ‘inside’ WHIST determines the next scene we watch; it’s a classic branching narrative device that is very prominent in non-linear video game design. Imagine a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book where the agency rests entirely with you; you map out your own path and are responsible for your next 45 minutes.

At times we’ll want to escape our polluted reality…not augment it with digital debris.”- Clyde DeSouza

The fantasy dream space of lust and Oedipal urges that Freud explored is ripe territory for a theatrical VR response; alongside their technology partner, Happy Finish, AΦE has created 20+ filmed scenes set variously in a dilapidated cottage, photographic studios and warehouses where you are introduced to the family gnawing on human hearts, waltzing with bird cages and evaporating into ping pong balls. With the headset on you’re limited in your ‘real’ movement and aren’t able to move through the VR space; you’re a static witness to the three- or four-minute filmed scenes from a single fixed camera perspective not of your choosing. I’m invited into this world though I’m unsure of my role. Am I an invisible voyeur? An additional family member? Something/one else? Without the clarity of who I am and my relationship to those around me it’s difficult to emotionally invest or empathise. The perspective changes across the scenes; sometimes we assume the head of the father, sometimes the camera is at knee height, sometimes on a silver platter and other times we’re inside a CCTV camera. Our virtual scale oscillates regularly but I’m unsure for what purpose.

Nakamura and Fourmi have created a number of other shorter screen, interactive and stage works before WHIST and are also members of the Jasmin Vardimon Company (Vardimon is the creative mentor for WHIST). The visually rich spectacle that has become Vardimon’s signature is laced throughout the work; be it a performer emerging from a wicker basket frantically scrawling indecipherable chalk symbols on the floor or an eerie motionless accordion player barely pressing the keys yet the sounds make it into your ear, the images stay with you.

It is a predisposition of human nature to consider an unpleasant idea untrue, and then it is easy to find arguments against it.” – Sigmund Freud

WHIST (named after Whist House in Kent where the work was filmed) defines itself as a ‘one-hour experience merging physical theatre, interactive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies and an art installation, in an environment that blurs the boundaries between consciousness and unconsciousness, reality and fiction, the physical and the virtual’. I find this language hugely alienating; in a cultural landscape of marketing hyperbole this description signals to a niche crowd and does little to provide clear and plain English entry points to the 92% of non-arts attenders.

An audience will predominantly experience a work only once and I found my first experience of WHIST quite unsatisfying; it’s physically limiting, generates a huge sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) as there are 75 other possible scenarios that I’ve not seen, and the technological fidelity and finish isn’t as crisp as it could be (you can often see the glitches where the 360 degree cameras meet and bodies warp momentarily). However, I went in for a second time — now familiar with the rules, the technology and the characters I had the chance to play with the interactivity of the work and it was richly rewarding. I found some of those alternative branching narratives (unlocking 3 new scenes along the way) and whereas in the first experience I didn’t feel in control and had a real sense of time rushing past me, during the second time there was a chance for greater depth, focus and the ability to find some of the triggers and nuances that are artfully hidden in the work. There’s a suite of scientific research from eye tracking studies that reveals hot spots and how our eyes are often drawn to movement that emerges from stillness on a screen/stage; I made a commitment to focus on one character in my second experience, tracking their journey and watching their reaction and interactions with others even though at times I knew there were other things happening outside my 80-degree viewing angle and that the other 280 degrees would have to go unwatched.

Just before the credits roll you’re given a number on screen which if you enter into AΦE’s website will translate into a loose interpretation/analysis of the route you’ve taken through WHIST. Using some faux Freudian language it’s desired aim is ‘to inspire questions, reflections and insights into the unique meaning the performance may have for you.’ However it comes across more like the end-of-the-pier Zoltar fortune telling machine from Big dishing out the same message to anyone who’s gullible enough to feed it some money (there was a LOT of repetition when I entered my two separate numbers).

Although there is little visible dancing in WHIST, but there is a definite choreographic consideration and execution in how our solo bodies experience those that are presented to us and the world they inhabit. WHIST rewards the audience and encourages multiple viewings as it unlocks more scenes, greater depth, hidden easter eggs and more of that luscious branching narrative.