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.


Jasmin Vardimon Company: MAZE

Posted: April 18th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Jasmin Vardimon Company: MAZE

Jasmin Vardimon Company & Turner Contemporary: MAZE, Winter Gardens, Margate, April 11

By Ian Abbott

An scene in Jasmin Vardimon Company's MAZE (photo: Martin Godwin)

An scene in Jasmin Vardimon Company’s MAZE (photo: Martin Godwin)

‘Show not what has been done, but what can be. How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths.’ (Umberto Eco)

Nothing has shifted.

MAZE offers no prologue, no rules and no explanation; therefore everything is permitted. As the audience (30 capacity) are de-coated, de-bagged and de-shoed in airlock settings and broken down from 30 to 10 we are eventually granted permission by a MAZE Guardian to enter. A labyrinth has but one path; to qualify as a maze there must be choices and it is when we’re finally permitted to enter one at a time that we are presented with our first choice. Left or right? Philosophically this idea of choice is central to the work; MAZE is an offer to engage, to play, to look and to share as much or as little as you’re willing to in a cathedral of foam with 20 performers for 35 minutes.

I entered MAZE twice (the one in the afternoon is a place where children are welcome and the one in the evening has some amended content and is suitable for adult eyes only). In the afternoon I gobbled up experiences and was hungry for content; I frenzied around MAZE, mimicking the intensity of the performers. The eruptions of movement, the slamming of self and others into foam walls was enhanced by the close proximity of my witnessing. The brutal and technical physicality which Vardimon’s choreography demands resonated much deeper for me than when it has previously been presented on a stage. I left MAZE drunk, having thrown, rolled and foamed myself senseless in this new world.

‘It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.’ (Lewis Hyde)

For my second entrance I chose to behave differently; to dwell in spaces more, to follow performers, let experiences unfurl, deepen my interaction and actually taste the MAZE. This approach offered a rewarding and embedded experience; more akin to the agency experienced in a computer game. I oscillated between two single characters who were giving me tasks to complete with miniature rewards in return and it was this ability to alter the course (not of the whole) of my experience that created a tissue of connection between myself and MAZE. One time I alone witnessed a depraved act and after it was complete the perpetrator buried me in foam and escaped from me and the echoes of the space.

In both performances, as I poured myself into the moment I was choosing to commit to, I recognised that there are many other moments (hidden exchanges, group choreographies, intimate moments of revelation) that are happening and I could be experiencing, but was not. I resolved this envy of the other and resisted the pull of what could be as these were the internal ceremonies and external theatres that I had chosen to be a part of.

The level of preparation and the ability to improvise when the performers had no control of what was going to happen or what an audience member would say to them left me feeling confident that they were able to deal with any interaction. This confidence and ability to shift and flex alongside the material triggered an instinct in me to acknowledge the intensity of the gaze and fix my eyes onto theirs.

You can decide to stand still and in that same act, you can decide you’re waiting for something. Nothing has shifted. Everything has shifted.

In such a highly controlled entrance and immersion in a space, the ending and exit of this clearly defined world felt inconsistent. We were offered the possibility of an awkward wedding dance duet outside the structure with one of the company and then left to drift away of our own accord. However, it will be the previous 35 minutes that linger longer as those exchanges are embossed on my skin and still ricocheting around my brain.

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are – if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.’ (Joseph Campbell)


JV2: Tomorrow

Posted: April 22nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

JV2: Tomorrow, The Place, April 5

photo: David Gerrard

photo: David Gerrard

JV2 consists of ten dancers from Europe and Asia who are studying for the Jasmin Vardimon Company Professional Development Certificate. Part of the course includes a series of seven performances that premiered at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury on March 19 and ends at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal on April 27. ‘Our aim,’ writes Vardimon, ‘is to train and develop well-rounded stage artists in a variety of performance disciplines and at the same time enable them to develop their own creativity. By blurring the definitions between art forms and encouraging collaboration they will be able to create and present work in a new and engaging light.’

Vardimon chose these dancers at an open audition, and they have been working alongside the professional company as part of their course. Seeing them on stage, it seems that any one of them could move seamlessly into the main company, which makes the course rather like a 25-week audition for which the students pay college-level fees. It is an inspired business model (unique in England), an inspired pedagogical model, but as a model for an evening of dance it proves less alluring.

JV2 is in part ‘an ideal opportunity for participants to deepen their knowledge of Vardimon’s methodology’ and there is no better way than to perform her works. Vardimon has designed this triple bill specifically for this tour, creating one of her own — a collage of extracts from previous works called paradoxically Tomorrow — and commissioning two others: Mafalda Deville’s Silence and Tim Casson’s Chapter One. Both choreographers have danced in the main company and Casson is the course leader for the JV2 Certificate, while Deville is the director of the company’s Education Project. One would expect a strong stylistic influence on their work from Vardimon, but Silence and Chapter One bear such a close resemblance to each other and to Tomorrow as to take their creative exploration to a level somewhere between plagiarism and sycophancy. While this may be stimulating and beneficial to the students, the effect of the triple bill over the course of the evening is one of predictable surprise.

On the positive side, Vardimon’s work is always witty, visually stimulating and musically eclectic and her dancers never give less than their all. On the distaff side, the wit, visual stimulus and musical eclecticism can be formulaic, like an overused refrain. All three works have a similar juxtaposition of unison movement and solos, narrative diversions, textual humour, surreal imagery, the use of voice, the overuse of the tucked-up fourth position and an overtly punishing tic of dancers having to hurl themselves to the floor (a dancer’s career is fragile enough as it is).

Deville’s Silence opens with a white sheet entering as a rectangle and turning into a sofa stuffed with dancers. The story of a first date on a dance floor (former ballroom dancer Lawrence James is a powerful and engaging presence) morphs into a crowd of hysterical fans at a Marilyn Manson concert giving us the full range of their voices (Noriko Nishidate’s hysterics indicate a performer with boundless resources). Tchaikovsky’s Only the Lonely Heart changes the mood to a mourning procession at the head of which Nishidate is pulled around the stage on the white sheet like a figurehead or an angel of mercy. In the background a couple is struggling in their embrace: a rag doll girl who can’t stand up and a violent partner who picks her up and lets her fall through his arms repeatedly. Silence is billed as an exploration of loss and longing, but it is loss and longing seen through the prism of Vardimon’s methodology; it is carefully crafted, has all the Vardimon attributes, but it lacks a unique voice.

At the very beginning of his work, Casson reminds us wryly of a dominant aspect of the Vardimon style when Joe Garbett flies prostrate from the wings on to the stage in his boxing gloves and shiny shorts as if ejected forcefully from the ring. Casson explores the music of the American folktronica duo, The Books, bringing out its quirky theatrical imagery in the wittily titled Chapter One. There’s a girl with a talking flower in a pot, a couple in clear plastic raincoats, Aleksandra Jakovic with her pet goat, Maria Doulgeri with a squid in a plastic bag and Connor Quill in a raccoon hat. In between The Books’ songs, Casson explores gestural correlation with both the speech of an incoherent drunk and with upper class conversational interjections. Casson’s strength is in his attention to detail, creating an intricate work — perhaps the most original of the evening — though it tends to default to the Vardimon style when it comes to broad phrases of movement and ensemble work. Although all ten dancers share equally in the details of gesture and voice Casson calls for, Cornelia Voglmayr is the one who is most herself in this work.

Vardimon’s Tomorrow is made up of the past; it is the art of making a retrospective look like an entirely new work. While three of the original works (Park, Justitia and 7734) were conceived with an integral vision — the fourth, Yesterday, is itself a collage of past works — their fragmentation and reconstitution into a new work raises the question of what we are seeing: without the integral vision, what is left is a visual and aural stimulus. It is as if we are seeing the building blocks of Vardimon’s creative process, the very methodology that is at the heart of the Certificate course. Interestingly, even though both Deville and Casson have created integral works, the form they use is heavily influenced by this building block concept, which in turn is facilitated by the eclectic choice of music: Tomorrow allows room for John Fahey, Sparklehorse, Brian Eno, Deathprod, Wagner, Mozart and Spiderbait. Deville’s Silence has a more restrained menu of Einstürzende Neubauten, Marilyn Manson, and Tchaikovsky.

The predominating image in Tomorrow is the vision of a moulting angel (Vogelmayr) in white with an armful of feathers. A flush of other angels swish crabwise like a blizzard back and forth across the stage, accenting their steps with their breathing. Vogelmayr gets caught up in their movement as she advances, losing feathers to the stampede despite her efforts to protect them: a sacrifice of purity and innocence to the passing of troubled times. This is where the redemptive music from Wagner’s Tannhauser swells the heartstrings along with Sparklehorse’s It’s a wonderful life and the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem. The feathers become the leitmotif, but Vardimon’s unison patterns and crashing fourth position dominate the choreography like an army on the rampage. It’s an unequal competition and the feathers remain scattered on the stage at the end, the ephemeral remnants of something alive and pure.