Lost Dog: Circus diptych at the Almeida Festival

Posted: August 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Lost Dog: Circus diptych at the Almeida Festival

Lost Dog, It Needs Horses and Home for Broken Turns, Almeida Theatre July 28

The Almeida Theatre has a stage like the apse of an old, disused church with stripped plaster walls that adapts perfectly to the circus ring of Lost Dog’s It Needs Horses with its wooden boarding in a semi-circle around the perimeter, beautifully lit by Jackie Shemesh. A rudimentary trapeze hangs to one side. Because of a last minute injury, Sita Ostheimer is replacing Anna Finkel. She has had only one day to learn it all, but at least she knows her partner, Chris Evans. Only weeks before they were performing as a couple in search of an idea in a lighthearted work, Accompany, for the Hofesh Schechter evening, In Good Company.

Drum roll. Cymbals. Lights up. Nothing. Ostheimer is standing on the trapeze as if she has been left there overnight, dressed in a rather seedy grey body suit with shiny, silver embroidered breastplates and crotch, a feather headdress and a rather mangy tail. Her face is painted white, her haunted eyes smudged black by tears, and her mouth enlarged by more than one application of lipstick. Evans, the ringmaster, in slightly better state, stands below her in the ring in yellow and red jester tights, white tee shirt and bowler hat (both costumes pulled lovingly out of an old circus bin by Holly Waddington) looking at his partner with a measure of contempt and futility, his shoulders bowed by impending defeat. His bearded, white face and expressive black eyes urge her to perform. Her eyes plead with the audience: she can’t get down. She whimpers a few notes of a song and Evans takes off his hat for contributions. Laughter, but no money from the crowd. He puts his bowler back on and helps Ostheimer slither down from her perch. The band starts up, and they begin a surprisingly energetic music hall routine as if on automatic, playing off each other’s rundown state until she falls. He continues dancing, trying to heave her back into action as part of the routine, kicks her to the music, pulls her, but she’s out for the count. Rushing to fill the ever-widening gap between expectation and fulfillment, the grim Evans tries juggling his pirate knives and apples, bungling both. He mimes in quick succession smoking a cigarette, fishing for the big one and steering a car, which he drives, and then reverses, over Ostheimer’s body, still to no effect. His last fragment is swimming, but the game is up. He offers his hat. Nothing.

Turning his attention back to Ostheimer, he runs his finger down her tail and miouws. He sits her up and feels her zipper. He unzips her enough to pull off one shoulder of her costume. As excited as he is inspired, he sits behind her and manipulates her hands like a puppet to caress her own breasts and thighs, then gets carried away by rubbing her crotch with animal passion. Aroused, she wakes up and hits him in the chest and then as they both get up, kicks him in the backside. All kinds of energy are beginning to flow. They struggle, the band strikes up again and they vaguely remember where they are. Continuing their routine to a crackly, slow foxtrot, she jumps in his arms but he tries to undress her more. She hits him again, knees him; he has his arms round her neck: a real catfight. She pulls his tee shirt off and thinking this might be the moment he pulls his tights down to his knees. His white Y-fronts look as if they have been washed rather too recently. Both parties catch their breath as they take stock of the situation. Whatever is going on has less and less to do with a desperately failing circus act and more to do with laying bare the emotions coursing behind the makeup and costumes: the frustration, the sexual energy, the passion, the madness, the fading dream.

Ostheimer takes the initiative, coyly slipping off her tail and launching into a sinuous display of unbridled libido as Evans remains rooted to the spot playing a muted mouth trumpet to her undulations. Her act really gets going, mouth wide open in animal abandon with associated guttural sounds, hands all over her body, her tongue on fire. She pulls Evans down on all fours and energetically humps him from behind with appropriate vocals. Ever the opportunist, Evans offers his hat for contributions. Nothing. He knocks her over, picks up one of his knives and puts it to her throat. He must regain control of his act, but she is all he has. To a simple musical theme that grows in emotional intensity and orchestration, he gets her running around the ring like a horse, to which he responds as ringmaster cracking his whip and whistling. He launches into a solo of excitement bordering on abandon, then joins Ostheimer jumping exuberantly around the ring though she is beginning to look and sound exhausted. She stops and won’t continue. He threatens her with the knife, but she is beyond being threatened. She walks off and he remains in the centre of the ring, letting the knife drop at the beginning of a final fitful dance of frustration leading inexorably to collapse.

It Needs Horses, conceived and directed by Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer, won the 2011 Place Prize. It is performed here as part of the Almeida Festival with a second, consecutive work, Home for Broken Turns, which is conceived, directed and choreographed by Duke himself. It is, in Duke’s own words, a work in progress, though more advanced than the day before.

There is no program for the evening, so we are left to figure it out. First is the transition: a trio of girls (Lise Manavit, Ino Riga and Solène Weinachter) clean up the knives and apples and assorted clothes from the ring to an ethereal banjo score (by James Keane); they dismantle the perimeter boards, stacking them neatly at the back. On a bare stage a fourth girl (Laura Pena), dressed to look older in country clothes of a distinctly Latin American flavor, plants herself authoritatively centre stage, legs apart, cigar in mouth, calling incessantly and distraughtly for ‘Anna’. The other three girls, similarly dressed, unfold two sun chairs and seat a skeleton in one with a bottle of wine. They then unroll a black road with a white-painted centre line along the front of the stage. This is the link to the outside world. Ostheimer stumbles along this road like a ghost, still in her costume. Perhaps she was making her way here at the end of It Needs Horses, but she doesn’t seem to recognize the place and passes unnoticed: the three girls are too involved in their wild harvest dance to look up. She returns from the other direction, crosses the stage and is gone again. The sound of an approaching bus catches the girls’ attention, bringing them expectantly to the side of the road with a begging bowl, speaking French and Spanish. No luck. The girls berate their imaginary customers, asking one after the other for money, a bus ticket, or a pen, while the cigar-smoking, gap-toothed matriarch – we’ll call her Mama – at the back keeps a constant eye on the proceedings. A gentleman evidently asks one of the girls if Anna lives there. No, désolée. One girl expresses frustration bordering on madness, the second girl comforts her, and the third is just pulsing with pent-up emotion. After the bus has gone, Ostheimer walks by again. Is she Anna? It is not clear, but we will assume so. There is a cockerel on a tall pole in the yard to which Mama prays in forcefully pious Spanish. One girl plays distractedly at riding a horse, a second drives a car that crashes. Another bus stops, but nobody gets off. Mama says life is like a shit biscuit and each day we eat a little bit of it, then she collapses from lack of food and a loss of hope; two of her girls try to revive her, turning her upside down and throwing her to the third, but Mama slides down her body to the floor. Anna drifts back along the road like a vision, and this time the girls grab her and throw her in the direction of the matriarch, who has a catatonic fit in voluble Spanish and the vision is carried off just before another bus arrives – this is a busy thoroughfare. Mama says I’m sorry, Papito veni, but with a gesture of resignation, picks up a chair and the bottle of wine and settles at the back. One of the girls barks, which sets off the pack of girls barking at passers by (where did they all come from?), and when they aren’t barking they’re smiling and begging for coca-cola, a fag or bubble gum, raising their skirts, and offering their favours. Two of the girls dance a desperate duo while the third moves sensuously, practicing the tongue gymnastics we saw in the ring earlier. This is evidently where it is all learned, the school of desperate performance. The girls monitor each other’s progress and success, both of which seem limited. Mama is now drunk and breaks up the party. The girls pretend to ply the skeleton with drink and wrap its bony arms around Mama: a macabre variation on the dance of the dead to a ghostly piano variation on the Pink Panther theme. The skeleton’s arms smack her backside then grab her from behind, doggy position – another image we have seen earlier in the ring – until a roaring, throaty climax. One of the girls removes the skeleton and takes Mama back to her chair; a second rehearses another dance of seduction while a third, hands gripped and fingers tense, dances on one leg. Anna is back again, and this time the three girls follow her in a reverential line on their knees, hand to ankle, but they can’t keep up. On Anna’s return Mama finally greets her, kisses her, hugs her. “Anna?”, she asks. Anna kisses her and retreats. The girls look to where Anna left, then gather up Mama for a ritual peasant dance to an earthy drum rhythm.

Graduation time has arrived, and one of the girls is chosen to dress up. She puts on her headdress, and slips out of her jeans and top into a costume exactly like Anna’s. How do I look?, she seems to ask, proudly. She leaves along the fateful road, another graduate on her way into an uncertain world, and meets Anna coming in the other direction. They stare at each other. The desperate cycle is completed, and repeats.

After seeing It Needs Horses, there is a sense that Home for Broken Turns is related (if only because the Ostheimer character reappears in it) but the stylistic relation is more difficult to see. Going from one to the other is like going from the structural tautness and poetry of a Beckett play to a narrative in a nineteenth century novel, of which most is in a foreign language with a high level of emotional distortion. The first has coalesced as a form, has found its particular place and character, and is complete in itself, while the second is still searching for its identity, like the characters themselves. Home for Broken Turns is for now an emotional outpouring of an imaginary precedent for an uncertain future, a bringing together of past, present and future in an inflammable alliance of passion and despair: a vibrant, gutsy performance in search of its true form.