Probe Project: Running on Empty

Posted: December 3rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Probe Project, Running on Empty, The Place, November 5

Greig Cooke and Antonia Grove in Running on Empty (photo: Matthew Andrews)

Greig Cooke and Antonia Grove in Running on Empty (photo: Matthew Andrews)

 

The printed program doesn’t give much away about the nature of the piece, but it’s immediately apparent that Running on Empty has a full tank of collaborators: apart from the three performers (Antonia Grove, Scott Smith and Greig Cooke) there is a director (Jo McInnes), writer (Brad Birch), choreographer (Charlie Morrissey), songwriter (Lee Ross), composer (Smith), set and costume designer (Fabrice Serafino) and lighting designer (Beky Stoddart) — an array of creative inputs that begs the question of who exactly has a handle on the direction. The marketing material features an enigmatic image of Cooke and Grove running together across a landscape as if escaping from a party: intense, focused, out of breath. That snapshot is replaced on stage by another indeterminate place but without a specific flight path. The set suggests a no man’s land where paths meet, an intriguing dreamland with a detrital heap of old furniture on one side with a tree of lights behind and a low wall delineating the unknown beyond. The set and lighting together create a sense of expectation as Smith takes his place behind a keyboard amongst the furniture as if sitting at a bar. He plays some doleful minor chords on the guitar as a prelude to a song remembering a relationship that Grove sings in a voice that is out on a husky limb, aching and velvety especially in its higher register: “Are we too close or too far apart?” with a bluesy harmonica accompaniment from Smith.

Cooke can just be made out lounging on the wall at the back, listening to Grove’s words: “I’d dive into the abyss if I thought I’d save your life”, she continues, glancing at Smith. Cooke stands, his hands and face caught in the narrow pane of light, and responds in dance, swishing and swirling in an intense solo in which he manifests his force and self-doubt in equal measure. Grove looks over at him for the first time. Smith, who plays both confidant and analyst to Grove, asks her: “What do you remember?” She shines a light underneath her chin, then at something unknown beyond her. Death? “What colour are its eyes?” asks Cooke. Grove is bathed in a subtle, fragile light, her arms raised and slightly behind her as if she had just been shot, and launches into a solo that is based on that arching back, wild and abandoned. With tenderness in his eyes Cooke comes to her rescue. “What are you doing?” “Bang, bang, arms, fuck,” is what I hear. The diction is rather muffled, perhaps a function of the portable mikes. “I’m building a boat,” she adds, kneeling, “to get you out of here. Just trying to build you a boat.” Evidently the running idea has been subsumed by metaphors of the sea, of boats and rafts.

The sound of breakers colours the clashing duet that follows, both Groves and Cooke forcing their limits (running towards empty) yet never touching; blowing each other away, shouting and screaming over the sound of sea. Smith pulls out a wooden pallet that serves as a raft on to which Groves and Cooke clamber. They look at each other. Is it over? Cooke leans out over the edge of the raft, hanging from Grove; she pulls him in; he takes her head as they fit into each other’s forms, but are they strangling or comforting? The Stevie Smith poem comes to mind,

‘…I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.’

The danger games persist. Who will fall off first? They kneel on the front of the raft and step with their hands and knees into the water. Smith reels in the raft, casting them away on the beach. Cooke and Grove embrace roughly then he chases her round the island, catching her, lifting and releasing her in a fury of entanglement and abandon. The sound of a storm whips up the action until it finally abates in an attempt at reconciliation: “Please forgive me” and “Where are we going?” but it’s impossible for Cooke to brake and he ends up — as I noted detachedly in my notebook — ripping her head off. It happens quickly, and its violence is unexpected. Grove crawls away; Smith brings her a glass of water and returns with the raft, dropping it with a bang as if offering a means of exit. “It’s not your fault,” he says, adding something about chance. She is in no mood for philosophical argument, so Smith goes back to his microphone and begins a song about an otter and a trout. It begins in surreal fashion with a pinwheel blast on his mechanical whistle, and prompts a series of surreal crustacean images: Cooke conjures up a lobster on its back as he crawls upside down towards Grove who scuttles in sympathy, or perhaps in fear. He crawls on to the raft, blowing out his cheeks like a conch shell, eyes popping, sounding like an angry elephant. Their duet develops into a tour de force of fragments of dialogue and screeching  fitting into behavioural tics: snorting, itching, scratching, spitting, leaping, At the end, Smith as analyst or agony uncle, brings Grove a beer: “You’re having problems.” She denies it. “Maybe that’s your first problem.” She counters: “Do you understand what it is to be me?” He mimics her itching, tentacle-like fingers that he then extrudes into the shape of a gun, the trigger caught in the light. Cooke is back on the sea wall. There’s text about illness and disease, the problems and insecurities of old age — all highly relevant but I’m not sure how it fits in here. “Will I recover, is it too late?” asks Grove. Smith smiles. It’s clearly too late for rhetorical questions. He rubs his hands and pushes away the microphone with his hip.

Grove and Cooke in smiling mood embrace and explore each other. After they have been through so much, the question arises of where this is going. The mood is playful, producing a natural, infectious laugh from Grove before she appears to confront her present. “Do you drink?” asks Cooke, followed by a question about dreams. “This is where my dreams are set,” she responds. Her final words to Cooke are, “Can you do me a favour? Stay away from the cliffs.” It is the first time the cliffs are mentioned, the landscape described beyond the rear wall, and in this place above the sea she starts to dance, scooping, twisting and turning to Smith’s guitar accompaniment that is somewhere between flamenco and hillbilly banjo. She throws herself into her moves, repeating phrases with a mix of courage, abandon and hopelessness and finishes by running around the stage, running out of steam. She prompts Smith into a last song (which repeats the melody of the opening song), dragging the microphone to centre stage, pouring all her emotional exhaustion into the lyrics: “So slowly now you bow into eternity… How long can you keep running?” with that gutsy, velvety voice running full on empty.

At the close, we are left elevated by the visual and aural imagery but there’s a disconcerting sense of gaps in the narrative cohesion. We learn later that Cooke has fallen off the cliffs to his death, but this loss fails to register. Does it matter? Death offstage seems a uniquely theatrical concept that dance can’t do by itself, which leads me to think that the narrative and the dance in Running on Empty are like oil and water; they are not blending. Grove suggests in the program that the work moves ‘from the dark and surreal world of dreams to the intricate and sometimes absurd nature of our daily human interactions.’ This is something that dance can do really well, and Grove is particularly adept at drawing the drama out of dance. Perhaps Running on Empty simply suffers from too many creative inputs; dreams inevitably have a consistency because all their fragmented elements can be traced back to the individual psyche. Running on Empty needs to forge a unity of its own creative psyche before its dream will ring true.