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?


Dad Dancing

Posted: January 10th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dad Dancing

Dad Dancing, Battersea Arts Centre, November 13, 2014

The core cast of Dad Dancing including the elusive Andy Webb

Left to right: Adrian Heafford, Rosie Heafford, David Hemsley, Alexandrina Hemsley, Andy Webb and Helena Webb

There were two December performances in London about dads, quite different in scope but united in focus. One was Dad Dancing at the Battersea Arts Centre and the other was Giulio d’Anna’s Parkin’son at The Place (which I have written about when it was performed as part of the Sick! Festival in 2013). The former is about the relationship between three dancing daughters and their non-dancing fathers (though the fathers successfully challenged the non-dancing aspect) and the latter about the relationship between a dancing son and his non-dancing father who has Parkinsons. In both performances the dads are on stage (except for the choreographed absence of Andy Webb), and both works are beautifully crafted and emotionally charged. Dad Dancing sets out to highlight the positive aspects of the father-daughter relationship but in the process the dads reveal a sometimes vulnerable underside that is touchingly human. Parkin’son is built around a more combative relationship that nevertheless contains a mutual love and respect but after close to 100 national and international performances and the creeping effects of the disease, father and son have to consider winding down. I hope Dad Dancing has a shot at 100 performances because it opens up a dialogue with the public about fathers (whether present or absent); the candour of the discourse and the raw enthusiasm of the onstage dads are cathartic.

The form of Dad Dancing is loosely set up as a theme and variations. The opening theme is all the daughters (Rosie Heafford, Alexandrina Hemsley and Helena Webb) with their respective fathers, Adrian, David and Andy (Andy actually never appears except on film as he is working but his contribution is full of surprises). So there are three pairs of pointed feet and two pairs of not so pointed feet doing a little shuffling, heel-and-toe routine. They are well rehearsed and move pretty much in unison until it comes to bending forward.

In the next section, Andy in a filmed message asks for an understudy. No volunteers, but a unilateral choice by the cast. This was my moment; I had the honour that evening of being Andy Webb, to walk in his footsteps. Literally. I was given written instructions as to how many steps to take in answer to certain quantitative questions that are displayed on a card for the benefit of the audience. ‘How many times have you been married?’ I take one step forward; David to my left takes a few more. None of the girls move. ‘How many children have you had?’ Three steps for me. The girls are rooted to the spot. I can’t remember where David ended up. For ‘How many jobs have you had?’ my instructions are to walk to the front of the stage.

Now for the solo variations; one of the daughters chooses three pieces of music from their iTunes playlist so whoever is dancing has to improvise. David hasn’t danced since his days in the Royal Tank Regiment; not promising for a solo performance, but he takes to the stage with natural rhythm. Having completed his three variations — one jazzy, one classical and one dubstep — he capers off jauntily to a waiting chair.

Rosie, Alexandrina and Helena establish their credentials by dancing like leaping gazelles after which the local supporting cast of seventeen (of all ages) joins in a long line to relate anecdotes about their respective fathers (when I saw the preview of Dad Dancing there were only the principal five on stage with Andy still at work). This is where the Dad Dancing Project is like a touchstone; nobody speaks ill of their father but there are some notable gaps in some of the relationships. Dad Dancing started off as a small-scale collaboration between three dancers and their fathers, but it has developed into a social phenomenon that recognizes the role of fathers in the lives of their children even if they have been absent. Hearing these anecdotes provides a welcome moment to reflect on our own fathers.

Each dad dances his three variations (Andy is filmed) as does each of the girls. The most candid moment is when the dads talk about the birth of their daughter, a place in which humour mitigates their emotional recall. Helena calls Andy on speakerphone to share another personal memory: his reaction to her disclosing she had started using the pill. She told her dad first on the understanding he would tell her mother.

At one point the entire cast has prepared a card on which each has written his or her hope for their respective father. They stand in a line presenting these cards to the audience and read them aloud, one by one. It is what Roland Barthes might call the punctum of a photograph, the moment when Dad Dancing reaches its emotional pinnacle and draws the evening to what might be a close. But then Adrian rides his bike around the stage with a light on his helmet to talk about his work as a geologist. It is true he hasn’t had this opportunity like the other dads, but its place in the show makes it seem one story too many. After Adrian the full cast returns to the stage to dance and invites audience members to join. Many do, and there is a celebratory feeling in the room. We all have dads but not only is it uncommon for children to perform with them, it is similarly uncommon to see them honoured in this way. Dad Dancing should be a national campaign; a lot of good can come out of it.

Dad Dancing is a co-production between Second Hand Dance and Battersea Arts Centre, co-commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre and South East Dance. Supported by Arts Council England, The Thistle Trust, Awards for All and Wandsworth Council.