Touch Wood 1 at The Place

Posted: September 19th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Touch Wood 1 at The Place

Touch Wood, The Place, September 3

Three women relax, stretch and gaze out at the audience as we come into the studio. On stage there is a wooden platform with two tiny, coloured beach chairs on it and a long wire hanging above it with a light fitting at one end but no bulb. This is Touch Wood, in which ‘four choreographers straight out of the studio seek out the audiences’ reaction as they try out fragments of their latest work.’ Or as the director of theatre and artist development, Eddie Nixon, points out in his introduction, ‘What unites all these works is that nothing is yet finished.’

Dog Kennel Hill has been working on Etudes in Tension and Cries, which Rachel Lopez de la Nieta introduces. It is the outcome of five days of work ‘appropriating scenes of high drama and conflict to see how we find ourselves in relation to them.’ ‘Appropriating’ is the operative word here; despite the gravity of the material the result is ambivalent, coming across as almost parodic. The melodramatic title could be a clue. There are four tableaux in which aggressor and victim change roles. In the first Lopez de la Nieta is a parade ground sergeant barking at a choreographer (Heni Hale) who is gently punching out a movement motif and answering back in army parlance about the duality of mind and body. The second frames a face-off between Lopez de la Nieta as a domineering director and Hale as her terrified, speechless assistant. The director wants her to talk about the work. Lopez de la Nieta’s languorous gyrations betray her pleasure at inflicting discomfort, while Hale is petrified and withers under the scrutiny. Finally, she stammers, ‘I think we should show it to some people and get some feedback.’ In the third tableau, Hale is the bullying aggressor pushing Lopez de la Nieta to her physical limits in a comic book treatment of boot camp with American accents, and the fourth portrays a sexual aggressor (a gyrating Hale this time) whose victim places a length of rope on her own lap, tapes her own mouth and puts her hands behind her chair. Neither Lopez de la Nieta nor Hale hold back in their performance but the treatment of violence remains enigmatic. Annie Loc is on stage to manage the lights — Guy Hoare’s lightprint is in the work already — but has no role in the action.

I had misread the title of William Collins’ work, Untied States, as United States, thinking he was an American in London. As soon as he begins to talk in a broad Scottish accent, I realize my mistake. In his introduction, Collins compares a dance in which the act disappears as soon as it is performed to the written word that can be left and picked up again at any time. I don’t remember what else he said, but his performance remains indelibly imprinted on my memory. Collins shares Untied States with Airen Koopmans and Eleanor Sikorski, but his quirky, angular choreographic style is so idiosyncratic that they wear it rather than inhabit it. As soon as Collins takes the stage, not unlike an Egon Schiele drawing in motion, it is clear he is totally committed to what he is doing; it’s in the eyes which are as engaged as the rest of his body. Collins is someone (he explains later) who can read a book in no particular order, and his choreography borrows from this propensity, though remaining (and this is what dance has over the written word) rivetingly in the moment. When we see emerge from his gestures the image of a long-haired girl throwing her hair around (he has no hair), and fanning herself before taking a refreshing shower, we are not sure if it’s the end of the story or the beginning, but he has fixed it in our minds with his wry sense of humour and inimitable mime, giving meaning to what has gone before. While he is rinsing his hair, Nixon calls ‘time out’ and the work steps out of its frame. In a revealing session of questions and answers with the choreographer afterwards (part of the Touch Wood format), Collins speaks about the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in which she describes in minute detail all the elements of a sunrise before the reader can put all the micro elements together to see the bigger picture. Collins seems to have pulled off a similar accomplishment in his choreography.

Valentina Golfieri walks on clutching her Mac, sets up a screen on the side, beams some images on to it and introduces her work, Strange and Unproductive Thinking to David Lynch’s track of the same name. Golfieri says she is not working towards making a product as much as she wants to create a means to an end. The images on the screen are a record of her influences. Standing centre stage, without moving her feet, her arms pull her neck and back down to her feet, again and again, faster, like peeling off a jumper or taking off layers to see what is left. What is left? Golfieri is not sure; her dark and lively eyes wear an expression of uncertainty as the unpeeling gets out of control. She pulls it back from chaos and her face relaxes; she is enjoying the process, circling her body now with raised arm gestures, until a sense of worry and despair returns. As the music stops she is left holding her head. In the silence she repeats a phrase ‘What if I speak now’ quietly, somewhere between a prayer and an incantation. Golfieri’s bold process reminds me of Paul Taylor’s early choreographic experiments in which he deliberately used everyday gestures (walking, queuing, standing) in an effort to rid himself of the influences of his past on any present or future choreography. To some it was strange and unproductive, but it gave him a platform (and the confidence) on which to build. Golfieri’s process is also one of divestment but we shall have to wait to see if it is the stimulus she wants.

Joseph Mercier lugs on his Mac connected to a keyboard. Tess Letham rolls on a suitcase and Leila McMillan and Jordan Lennie drag on large crash pad. Mercier and his Panic Lab colleagues introduce the concept of Toxic as a comic strip: how we might be superheroes, using a movement vocabulary of characterization with little bits of a story. Letham takes her suitcase with her to the microphone to set the story’s context; she has just the right intonation and delivery. The show begins with city sounds; Joseph is a man reading the Daily Mail (with the headline Pupils packed in like sardines) waiting for a bus with two others. Letham herself is, we are to imagine, dressed in a yellow leather biker suit, ‘like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.’ Mercier picks a fight with her in which the other two join, but Letham makes quick work of his attack and defends herself convincingly in slow motion combat circling the stage, beating them all. She is the only one left standing. ‘It was not my intention to do that in front of you’ she demurs heroically into the microphone.

In the second clip, Lennie is locked up in jail. Mercier the interrogator asks him his name. ‘T-Cell’. We hear the sound of a whip (thanks to sound designer Dinah Mullen). What’s your real name? asks Mercier, trying hard to look menacing. Whip. What do you know about the one they call Canary? McMillan walks down the stage provocatively, arms rising, looking at each of us, a femme fatale. Letham provokes her by saying, ‘I’m the Iron Lady, the world’s most powerful.’ McMillan tells us that the girl wearing the yellow suit is a whole world of trouble. They strut around each other. McMillan zaps her with her fingers: round one to the femme fatale. Mercier moves the crash pad to meet Letham’s next knockout. Meanwhile Lennie wakes up and tangles with her but McMillan steps in to destroy them both while Mercier looks on wide-eyed.

He warns us that the next scene is a little violent. He and Lennie are walking around in another slow motion fight scene, punctuated by violent contact blows or lifts that send Lennie flying while the two girls look on. Letham concludes in a bubble of speech that she knows exactly what she needs to do. They all do. To be continued.



The Place Prize semi-final 2

Posted: September 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Place Prize semi-final 2

photo: Benedict Johnson

The Place Prize Semi-final 2 (Mamoru Iriguchi, Rick Nodine, Dog Kennel Hill Project, h2dance), The Place, September 18

The narrow strip of stage is littered with wires, screens, projectors and cameras, the electronic detritus of multimedia performance artist, Mamoru Iriguchi. There are four rectangular screens, two placed equally either side of centre stage, and on top of each is a seat number from the Royal Opera House: Balcony B2, Stalls A15, A16 and Dress Circle C54. Iriguchi’s training as a zoologist and his fascination with video evidently influenced his original concept of creating a ‘dramatic tapestry’ of different perceptions (from different seats in the house) of a single performance. In One Man Show Iriguchi plays both performer and (onscreen) audience but his subjective concept has turned in on itself and becomes a self-parody and his feedback a solipsistic loop. His performance is a mercilessly melodramatic dissection of Hamlet’s monologue To Be or Not To Be and his on-screen, alter-ego audience tells him if he misses a line (he does) or if his acting is up to scratch (it isn’t). What further undermines the concept is that Iriguchi’s self-deprecating humour erases any trace of ego. Every now and then thought bubbles from his ‘audience’ are projected on his screens that say things like ‘Don’t fall asleep, you snore’ or ‘what on earth is he doing now?’ Indeed, it is difficult to know if Iriguchi is taking self-deprecation to a new level of seriousness, or if he and his dramaturgs, Nikki Tomlinson and Selina Papoutsell, are pulling our collective leg. Not all is lost, however; although Iriguchi’s Hamlet and his playing of Ophelia in the traditional Shakespearean way is pure ham, the way he introduces the ghost of Hamlet’s father is a brilliant slip of technology: he knocks over his own image on a screen and the image is immediately projected on to the back wall like a giant ghost. Technician Michael Sowby slurs the ghost’s speech to almost unintelligible basso in what develops into a multimedia trio between the ghost (who doesn’t recognize his son in drag), one of Iriguchi’s alter-egos who has been drinking and offers his own version of Hamlet’s soliloquy, and Iriguchi himself who continues to declaim his lines above the chaos. In the end, one of his ‘audience’ screws up his program sheet in disgust and it drops down on to the stage with the whistle of a doodlebug; it is Iriguchi’s comment on his chances of getting to the final, but he is still smiling.

Rick Nodine’s work is called Dead Gig. He is a tall, lightly bearded American expatriate with an academically seasoned look, standing in trousers and a jacket (lovingly picked out by Eleanor Sikorski) made shapeless by a harness connected by a rope, over a pulley, to a shoe hanging in space (beautifully lit by Gareth Green). Nodine’s work ends at its beginning, but he has to take us through the story to arrive there. He starts by asking, “Why was I into a band twenty years after their heyday? Why was I born twenty years late?” As he walks across the stage, pumping his arms front and back, the shoe on the end of the pulley rises, and as he returns the shoe descends. He talks as he develops his improvised tasks, telling the story of the Grateful Dead, to which the Dead in his title refers. His clear text is accented by his movement, and the band’s live recordings punctuate the narrative. At one point he sings along into his shoe as microphone; his voice is powerful, and his singing is pretty damn good. If you consider the voice as a physical instrument, his voice is dancing. He takes the harness off and puts on his shoe as we hear another Grateful Dead song: their music, like a drug, is beginning to have an effect on me. Nodine says he was inspired to dance because of the band; this is his dance of appreciation. I said earlier he is a big man, and seeing him whip around his long, heavy limbs and torso with such power and equilibrium as he gets into the music is impressive. Green provides a light show that suggests at times a 70’s rock concert and at others a Haight-Ashbury happening with a massed flower pattern on the back wall. The more Nodine dances, the more he is out of breath, but he continues to take us through the history of the band, how it became the house band for the LSD-fueled acid test festivals that Ken Keasey staged, how their imagination was given full rein, and how he once saw a Deadhead dancing at a concert, ‘bucking like a bronco, his spine undulating, pumping his arms front and back’, as if in a trance. ‘Dancing in a Dead show could best be expressed as ecstatic dance that was communal but self-absorbed and purely focused on the pleasure of moving to music’, Nodine says in his introductory video. He keeps the beat going, whirling like a dervish, as he takes us into the heart of the matter: Jerry Garcia’s death. He lowers a disco ball covered in a veil, places the veil on his head like Garcia’s mass of hair, puts on a pair of dark glasses, and sets the ball spinning. At one moment he is on the floor in mourning weeds, then standing, listening as if in transcendent communication with the band, his elegant hands crisped, his eyes looking far away. The question at the heart of this piece, Nodine explains in his video, is how the ecstatic relates to the aesthetics of dancing on stage. His performance answers that question, and as he lets the track Death Don’t Have No Mercy wash over us, he transforms us, too, into Deadheads.

Dead Gig has been chosen for The Place Prize Final.

Dog Kennel Hill Project’s Execute Now is a polemic about values. ‘Execute now’ is a trading term used in the buying and selling of stocks and shares and the set can be seen as a metaphorical trading floor with weights instead of computer terminals. There are three performers, Luke Birch, Matthew Morris and Ben Ash, and their clothes (conceived by DKHP with Marisa Lopez de la Nieta) are the antithesis of stock exchange couture. Morris is bare-chested, displaying his full-body tattoos, with jeans and an apron, like a smithy in his workshop. Birch is in blue lab coat and pixie hat, while Ash looks like a messiah in a judo outfit with a red bandanna. The atmosphere is intense, passionate, angry and confrontational. The original concept was more about ‘pendulums, Pythagoras and purpose’, and the use to which pure mathematical numbers might be put, but the drive of the finished work has taken on the zeal of a diatribe by the environmentalist David Suzuki (I found out later from Ash) from a film called Surviving Progress: ‘The economists say if you clear-cut the forest, take the money and put it in the bank, you could make 6 or 7 percent. If you clear-cut the forest and put it into Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, you can make 30 or 40 percent. So who cares whether you keep the forest, cut it down, put the money somewhere else? When those forests are gone, put it in fish. When the fish are gone put it in computers. Money doesn’t stand for anything and money now grows faster than the real world. Conventional economics is a form of brain damage.’

On the bare stage, under Guy Hoare’s seeringly white light, we see the system of pulleys with small sandbags on the ends of three ropes, hanging inert. There is a turntable either side of the stage with amplifiers and controls. At the start the three performers swing the weights across the space and catch them according to the value reported through the ‘trading floor’: 10,000, descending to 40. As the value decreases the weights’ arc diminishes; at 40 it stops. There are other weighted ropes that the trio hoist up and down themselves from the fly rig, and they also work the turntables, playing ‘excerpts of various vinyl pressings’ to which Birch dances around the weighted sandbags that Ash and Morris manipulate. At one point each takes hold of a rope and shakes it like a trio of bell ringers to the taped voice of an auctioneer in full flood. The ropes look like wild snakes. Ash raises a bag above his head and lets it fall, collapsing to the floor a split second before it reaches him; it remains suspended just above his supine head. The significance of ‘Execute Now’ suddenly takes on a more sinister meaning. To wind up, Ash counts down with hand signals, each a sign for some activity. On four fingers, Morris demonstrates yoga at the front of the stage, rippling his stomach muscles and tattoos; on three, Ash skips across the floor and screams silently; on two Birch and Morris stand either side of two weights staring at us and on one – which also resembles a warning – the three stand back to back around a single weighted rope, like heretics at a stake.

Joining the dots in Execute Now is not easy, such is the distance between the abstracted metaphors and what they represent. What carries the work forward is the passion and intensity of the performers. Like the weights, my understanding of the work swings one way and another, never quite finding its point of repose, but perhaps that is what Ash wanted to achieve.

After a workout for the theatre crew, the stage is set for a very different kind of performance. From its original, loose, concept to this iteration, h2dance’s Duet has established a remarkably polished form as a choreographed dialogue between the cheerful Hanna Gillgren and the sardonic Heidi Rustgaard. The work is intense in its own psychological way and, as with any work in which Wendy Houstoun has a creative role, it has a rich, dark vein of comic deconstruction. It is brightly lit by Andy Hammond, and Rustgaard designed the cheerfully coloured costumes.

Once Hanna and Heidi have established, after deferring to one another, that it will be a duet – not a solo and not a trio – they begin a four-step shuffle that accompanies Sylvia Hallett’s soundscape as the beat of their first dialogue, about the couple therapy session they have just attended (‘haven’t we, Heidi?’). It is immediately clear that the therapy hasn’t improved anything in their relationship. Heidi is the rudder and Hanna the sails and it is all Heidi can do to try to keep the two on (her) course. The four-step shuffle gains a jump and an arabesque, and a little hit-the-leg dance ensues. Heidi adds a head and arms, and while Hanna takes a break offstage, Heidi looks for approval from the audience. That changes when Hanna returns, and lets it all hang out with her provocative pelvic gyrations and moans and the ever-alluring smile. Heidi leaves for a pee, the sound of which is amplified for our benefit, and by the time she returns, Hanna is feeling much better but Heidi is smouldering with frustration. Hanna is not paying enough attention so Heidi takes the smoke machine and blows smoke at her like a pesticide with barely concealed contempt, after which she lies down from the exertion. Hanna calmly stands on her back. ‘You had a breakdown, didn’t you Heidi?’ And I wasn’t there for you, was I?’ Evidently not, as Heidi launches into a calmly disparaging attack on Hanna’s cloud-nine, bubble lifestyle at the time (to a dramatic heightening of the score), while she herself was slogging away at the excel sheets and budgets and promoting the work. While she lists all she had to do and all she achieved, she goes into a routine of push ups, sit ups, neck-ups and rants about cash flow, no flow, overflow, and the Arts Council, until Hanna comes in drinking a glass of water. Rant over (‘Never heard you speak that much, Heidi’), Hanna soothes Heidi’s ruffled ego back to the feel-good four-step shuffle and a long list of analogies. ‘We’re like Gilbert and George (aren’t we Heidi?), like Morecombe and Wise, fish and chips, bubble and squeak, strawberries and cream, two peas in a pod….’ As the movement phrases and the music gradually fade, Hanna is back in control: ‘We’ll finish there, then… Andy, you can take the lights out now.’ And he does.

Duet won the audience prize, and will be in The Place Final.

Dog Kennel Hill Project: Marks, Measures, Maps and Mind

Posted: September 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dog Kennel Hill Project: Marks, Measures, Maps and Mind

Marks, Measures, Maps and Mind is a promenade performance created by Dog Kennel Hill Project, co-commissioned by South East Dance, Turner Contemporary and Stour Valley Arts as part of RELAY, and produced by South East Dance and Stour Valley Arts, August 27.

Marks, Measures, Maps and Mind celebrates the physical body through a range of sports-driven tasks, in a breathtaking natural setting. Sporting challenges and actions form the basis for a dance that showcases the human drive for precision and perfection within the wild and epic locations of the forest, rekindling the timeless relationship to our natural environment (from the program).

I’ve seen some impressive theatres, but King’s Wood near Challock in Kent beats them all for size, natural beauty and lighting. The forest serves as Stour Valley Arts’ principal gallery for outdoor visual arts commissions, but this is the first time it has worked on a dance performance. With the Olympics looming over every aspect of our cultural life, Dan Howard-Birt, assistant curator at Stour Valley Arts, makes the analogy between the natural and improved in terms of sports training and the natural and improved in terms of the Forestry Commission’s management of King’s Wood. ‘Dog Kennel Hill Project approach the subject of the natural and the improved through dance and the human body…trained and scripted to enact movements and gestures of particular exactness, which when seen sequentially or en masse reveal the artists’ ordered design.’

King’s Wood is thus transformed from a vast gallery into a vast theatre. Front of house facilities are housed on the edge of the car park in a tent with cupcake bunting that is home to an enthusiastic team of production staff from South East Dance and Stour Valley Arts, while in an adjacent silver Airstream a filmed interview with Ben Ash and Henrietta Hale of Dog Kennel Hill Project – creators of this promenade performance – is showing on a screen. It’s not easy to hear the interview as there are children running up and down the ramp to the caravan and launching themselves off the steps with wild enthusiasm. What I do catch is Hale talking about absurdity in their work – ‘a purpose with lack of purpose’ – and according to Ash, there is an umbrella theme in Marks, Measures, Maps and Mind of progress and decline around the notion of work. They talk of the different textures of the forest, of the sense of order and repetition in nature. The theme of sport seems to have taken a back seat. The short interview finishes with an invitation to ‘feel the forest, feel the performance.’

Outside we are formed into two groups of thirty people, each with a guide. It is oversubscribed this evening for the last performance. After a briefing, the two groups merge into the forest like a straggle of pilgrims, some with staffs and walking sticks, some dressed for the theatre, some for hiking. We trek for fifteen minutes through King’s Wood, along a path through the meadow, past the beech trees, sweet chestnut trees, larch and shoulder-high ferns. Little Robin Hoods with their sticks run off into the undergrowth and back, birds sing, and the air becomes danker and cooler and the light more muted as we enter further into the forest. There is no fourth wall in this theatre; there is no wall at all.

After fifteen minutes, we turn right and climb a long and grassy path, the final ascent to the beginning of the performance. At a gateway of green string tied between two trees we divide into our groups and enter along the path. In the dappled light we encounter male and female dancers in groups of two or three, dressed in blue and yellow tops with black or white skirts, standing still among the trees on either side of the path, staring ahead, hands open as if we have come across a group of pagans in a solemn ritual. The figures stand out in the forest, sculpting the space with their bodies, though their costumes are too wooly to make their shapes precise. And then they overtake us, running to the next event in energetic disarray. Our groups stop in front of a dancer precariously wedged between the trunk and an outcropping stem of a tree, with two pieces of wood knotted to either end of a green string balanced over her head; as her head moves dreamily from side to side, she resembles the pendulum of a grandfather clock. We move on and the group splits into two, approaching the next event from two sides. In the clearing a dancer with a giant wooden measuring compass creates heroic geometric shapes, pointing up towards the tops of the trees, or at right angles to the ground, while the other two women jump and circle her as wild, dynamic satellites: images of some cosmic drama, a vestige, perhaps, of Oscar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus experiments.

We move off down a sloping, winding path of rare natural beauty beneath the forest that dwarfs our movement. We come to a ridge of back-lit trees where two dancers manipulate articulated, rectangular frames that make the clacking sound of folding deckchairs. This is more musical than measuring and insufficiently epic to influence the space. If you put small movement in a forest, it is the forest that dominates. Yet a figure standing still throughout the interlude who suddenly runs off down the hill – a tiny figure running amongst the monumental trees – takes our breath away.

We continue our path down, past two performers balancing sticks and come to a turning. A sign says ‘Do not play on the sculptures’, but the sculptures are so much a part of the forest’s natural forms that the sign is our only indication they exist. We are at the bottom of the valley and our guide turns us to look back up the incline to see an impressive array of figures like statues on this vast stage of sloping forest floor. On a shout – the first introduction of any human sound – the dancers run up and down within their delineated space and as suddenly come to rest, their arms marking slowly the four cardinal points. Only the muffled roar of jet engines far above the canopy of trees remind us of the world we have temporarily left. On another shout the dancers flee in all directions, rushing past us and on to the next event. We climb again, a fairly steep climb up the opposite slope and stop before a single introspective figure in white and blue, one knee anchored to the leafy forest floor as she turns slowly with angular arms and arching torso to a faint, watery score that we strain to hear over the brooding silence of the forest. We rustle off in search of our next sighting. Accustomed now to the stillness of the forest, it is easy to spot a running figure. He is circling round the rim of a crater (this is a sculpture) in which water has collected. A woman perches on the rim balancing a triangular construction of string and sticks, as if she is fishing. The man runs round and comes to a stop opposite her to watch.

We meet the other group at an intersection of paths where, in the clearing, two women perform with sticks as extensions of their arms and a giant crossbow-like structure strapped to their backs. They move their extensions like feelers, sensing and searching our invasive presence. They might also be, according to the program, ‘investigating a relationship with space and time through the marking and mapping of points in rhythmic sequences’, but the forest does not suggest such cerebral analysis: the dancers are more like giant insects, who retreat to safety under a canopy of trees. We follow like hunters on the trail of some exotic fauna, now trapped and buzzing, then let them go, and enter another opening off the path, to sit in the bowl of what may well be our second sculpture scooped out of the forest floor with an ordered arrangement of branches and the trunk of a tree. Bird song stands out from the ambient sound as the dancers surround us on the rim, watching us who are watching them. One by one the dancers begin to gyrate their shoulders and raise their heads and arms to the sky in a silent benediction, and then they are gone. As we regroup, we hear them chanting down the path, like a small crowd of victorious football supporters. It is as if the dancers emphasise the nature of the forest by what it is not: trained human shapes, human voices and social activity.

We move off again and come to a circle of trees and the sense of a finale. From the slope above us, the array of dancers descend closer to take up new shapes. One girl does a handstand against a tree. The sound of birdsong from the speakers seems extraneous. As they sweep past us to take up positions further down the slope, the dancers lay red sticks at the edges of our group, marking us. Standing with their backs to us they look out over the sloping forest below. We are once again a part of their ritual. Rain begins to fall, real rain; it sounds like distant applause from under the high canopy of leaves. It is the cue for the dancers to move off down the hill, disappearing over the ridge and leaving us with a tiny crescendo of rain that stops as magically as it began. The sound of our clapping in the forest is surreal, bringing us back to the conventions of a theatre. As we humans file back refreshed in mind and weary in body to the starting point, there is enthusiastic discussion of meaning and experience. I wonder what the forest was thinking as it observed the performance: small, animated figures rushing amongst the trees and gesturing, viewed by two groups of figures following at a different rate, but not doing anything: not feeding, not fighting, not sheltering, not growing. Scripted, ordered, unfathomable. Let’s see that again.