PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake

Posted: March 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake

PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake, The Albany, Deptford, March 9

Joseph Mercier and Jordan Lennie in Theseus Beefcake

Joseph Mercier and Jordan Lennie in Theseus Beefcake

It began with a question choreographer Joseph Mercier was asked by a correspondent on the gay social network app, Grindr: Are you masculine? Not sure how to answer, and then getting blocked, he was left to ponder the question with long-time collaborator Lennie. But Lennie likes to wear his girlfriend’s clothes, paints his fingernails occasionally, wears his hair long and was kicked off his school football team after missing a game for a dress rehearsal of Billy Elliott. Mercier himself grew up in a cowboy environment at the foot of the Canadian Rockies and went to ballet school. If these two researchers were going to explore the question of masculinity they felt they would have to adopt some masculine stereotypes like drinking beer, crushing cans, spitting, watching football games, wearing sports shirts, and going to the gym. They even checked up on the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur for inspiration.

In Theseus Beefcake Mercier tells the story of an evening in a local Alberta town. He had started ballet school and was on his way with friends to a bar called Outlaws when he was stopped by four rednecks in a pickup truck. ‘Are you gay?’, they asked. On replying ‘Yes’, he was immediately surrounded but escaped to the bar only to see the same rednecks arrive later. He fled. “I know that leaving the bar that night was the right solution,” Mercier says, “but part of me wishes I had stayed to fight for my right to be there.” Theseus Beefcake sets out to put the record straight: a beefcake in a labyrinthian struggle to defeat gender stereotypes.

Written and created by the trio of Mercier, Lennie, and Canadian playwright, Jordan Tannahill, the set is a bullring concocted by the ever-resourceful Rachel Good and lit by Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn: The Albany (who co-commissioned the work with Homotopia) is transformed into an arena in which we are seated around the circular balcony looking down on the action. In the centre is a raised boxing ring with red floor lights but no ropes, attached on opposite sides to a platform where Mercier and Lennie establish their respective camps. Two helmets sit in the ring to remind us of the mythical analogy: a black bull’s head for the Minotaur and one plumed helmet for Theseus. In the opening the two helmeted men raise the stakes of male antagonism by trading threats across the ring about what each will do with the other’s balls. They strip down to their trunks, chug down a can of beer, crush it in one hand, discard it in manly fashion and get down to an all-out wrestle, a homosocial form of sport with sexual undertones that are often disguised.

Mercier first experienced wrestling at school when he and fellow student Joseph were in gym class; sparing together they each discovered a sexual attraction. Being in Alberta, this leads to a Brokeback Mountain moment when Mercier and Lennie camp out to Dinah Mullen’s sounds of a crackling camp fire (Lennie in cowboy outfit with two desultory wieners on a stick), embrace, sing a duet, pass out a shot of Jack Daniels to the audience and dance to the song Cadillac Ranch. They get into a scrap and from the dense haze that permeates the ring, Lennie’s Theseus emerges on the shoulders of Mercier’s Minotaur. This succession of anecdotes, songs, dancing, wrestling and boxing excavates the layers of masculinity in a seamless and often hilarious blend of bulls, balls, beer and ballet. The only flat notes of the evening are the one or two sung by Mercier, but his delivery wins over.

In the Greek myth it is Ariadne, daughter of the Minotaur’s master, who gives her lover Theseus a lifeline in the form of a thread he lets out behind him as he enters the labyrinth so he will find his way back after killing the beast. Mercier’s willingness to enter the labyrinth of gender politics and to slay the monster at its heart is complemented by Lennie as both the Minotaur taunting Mercier in and as Ariadne leading him out. It is part of a complex relationship in which Mercier, with an aversion to aggression, likes to play out his power fantasies while Lennie, with an equal aversion to aggression, likes to play the submissive role that enables it. They discuss this gender identity role-playing in a talk-show format that ties together the Grindr experience and the rednecks at Outlaws. “I don’t want to privilege binary gender mouth,” quips Mercier as he prepares to lay his demons to rest. In anticipation they brawl on a beer-soaked stage, exulting in the physical intimacy. While Mercier as Theseus mops up, Lennie in a parallel universe sings Electricity from Billy Elliott. ‘I really can’t explain it, I haven’t got the words…’

Mercier invites the audience down to the ringside as clients of Outlaws, but the contest is not what we are expecting. Mercier does not appear as Theseus the hero slaying the redneck Minotaur (which would be to perpetuate the myth of gender stereotypes). Instead he enters wearing the Minotaur mask, a Chicago Bulls vest and boxing gloves: “Welcome to the labyrinth, Motherfucker,” he snarls at the defenceless Lennie. They trade insults about the size of each other’s dick then Mercier begins to lay into Lennie, knocking him down repeatedly with hard punches to the chest and head. Lennie takes it all without putting up any resistance, getting up for more until he has finally had enough. We are left wondering who is fighting whom and if anyone has won. But that is exactly what Theseus Beefcake sets out to answer. In the complex fight against straightforward assumptions of what it is to be masculine and the ways in which it might be expressed, Mercier and Lennie have in effect slain the myth of binary opposition in gender stereotypes, and in doing so they have both earned their right to be themselves without fully conforming to any particular stereotype. Recovering, the two men find just enough breath to trade threats about what each will do with the other’s balls.

Swan Lake II: Dark Waters & This Moment Now

Posted: December 4th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Swan Lake II: Dark Waters & This Moment Now

Paniclab, Swan Lake II: Dark Waters & Sylvia Rimat, This Moment Now, Chelsea Theatre, November 25

Jordan Lennie on his island of feathers in Swan Lake II: Dark Waters (photo: Nicola Canavan)

Jordan Lennie on his island of feathers in Swan Lake II: Dark Waters (photo: Nicola Canavan)

This is a Swan Lake that is perhaps closer to the Imperial Russian court and Siegfried’s hunting party than you might think but admittedly miles from the choreography of Petipa and Ivanov. When you hear Tchaikovsky’s overture you might be forgiven for thinking director Joseph Mercier is taking cheap shots at a classic ballet but this is more like a surreal 55-minute preface to Swan Lake: what is happening at home in the nest while Odette fights for her freedom against the demonic control of Von Rothbart in the royal palace. Presumably her mate is unaware of her true identity.

As we enter the auditorium we see an island of white feathers on the stage with its sole occupant, Odette’s cob (Jordan Lennie) lying naked on his feather bed brooding languidly on the eggs while awaiting her return. It is a startling homoerotic opening image that joins a long history of erotic swan associations. Hanging from a rope above him is the body of another swan, the collateral damage, perhaps, of the royal hunting party. The stark beauty of Rachel Good’s set is like the swan itself: elegant on the surface with all the workings hidden underneath. Lennie is a tidy, industrious mate who keeps his feathers pristine and buries his domestic appliances out of sight in the soil beneath the feathers: an electric hob, a frying pan, a spatula, a dressing tent, a mobile phone and an old pair of tights.

One of the characteristics of Joseph Mercier’s work is that he presents performers on stage without any distinction between self and character: in Swan Lake II: Dark Waters Lennie is a swan keeping the nest eggs warm but when he is sexually roused he signals climax by crushing an egg in his hand, when hungry he eats one raw, rustles up an omelette or peels a chocolate egg and eats it while watching the audience watching him. There is no slipping in and out of character for it is all undifferentiated Lennie.

Despite Mercier’s description of the work as an ‘estranged ode’ there are moments when he has his tongue firmly in his cheek — his use of Dusty Springfield singing I just don’t know what to do is one — but there is something deeply creative and satisfying in his imagination and the work provides Lennie with moments of extraordinarily beautiful imagery. There is a brief quote from The Dying Swan, a more extended one from Nijinsky’s Faun in which Lennie finds comfort among the wings of the dead swan (to the Springfield track), but the overpowering image is the naked swan staggering blindfolded on pointe among the feathers of his nest screaming for Odette. Mercier might well be expressing aspects of his own psyche but I can’t help feeling he is also touching on aspects of Tchaikovsky himself. Swan Lake II: Dark Waters lives up to its name, swimming from one emotion to another — from sensuality to loss, from frailty to strength, from the clarity of laughter to the loneliness of self-reflection — lapping ever closer to the edge of madness. Lennie’s performance shines but this is an inspired team effort: Good’s set, Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn’s lighting, Dinah Mullen’s sound design, Lennie’s choreography and Mercier’s direction.

Sylvia Rimat with drummer Chris Langton in This Moment Now

Sylvia Rimat with drummer Chris Langton in This Moment Now

Swan Lake II: Dark Waters is part of Chelsea Theatre’s season of contemporary performance, Sacred. It is the kind of programming that challenges and demands an investment of time, which is the subject of Sylvia Rimat’s This Moment Now that opens the evening. Rimat is as caught up in her subject as Mercier is in his but its nature — the elusive concept of time — demands a more analytical if playful approach. Rimat in her delivery is as precise as the metronomes set ticking at the beginning of her performance though these stand no comparison to the notion of atomic time to which she introduces us from outside the theatre via skype at the beginning of the show. She writes that the work is inspired by conversations with three eminent professors but it is her way of research to start with the highbrow and then find lowbrow, ludic ways to express her findings. She expresses time through spoken text, demonstrates it palpably through the beat of drummer Chris Langton and slows down the performance itself by serving tea half way through. We experience vicariously the present moment of a live cockerel on stage (thanks to the skillful stewardship of stage manager Alasair Jones) and watch filmed interviews with the elderly Eileen Ashmore (who also dances up a storm) and the young sisters Lola and Marlina Steinhauser Somers (clearly influenced but not prompted by dramaturg Tanya Steinhauser). Despite the arcane nature of the science Rimat keeps all her explanations within the framework of performance. It is what might be termed performative science: time is the subject but Rimat’s intelligent stagecraft makes it the unassuming star.


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.



Resolution! 2013: PanicLab, Ji-Eun Lee, B-Hybrid Dance

Posted: January 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution! 2013: PanicLab, Ji-Eun Lee, B-Hybrid Dance

Resolution! 2013: The Place, January 11

PanicLab: Throb: A Cardiovascular Romance

A curtained cubicle in hospital green with a single pillow and a basin of water is not the kind of setting that immediately comes to mind for a work with the provocative title, Throb: A Cardiovascular Romance, but choreographer Joseph Mercier juxtaposes sexual and clinical connotations in this meditation on the proximity of love and care, life and death, light and darkness.

Based on Mercier’s personal experience, Throb: A Cardiovascular Romance is a celebration of a significant event in a commonplace, clinical environment: a carer guides his terminally ill patient through the final stage of his life. It is ‘dedicated to Erin Mercier and many others.’ Throb refers both to the relationship that develops between the carer (Mercier) and his patient (Tim CJ Chew), and to Chew’s heart which is suspended in a jar with a breathing red light that he keeps close to him at all times. As the supine Chew restlessly changes position, Mercier swiftly places the pillow under his head, the two tracing Escher-like patterns on the floor. As Chew’s movements are driven by discomfort, Mercier’s are always tender and solicitous, feeling Chew’s forehead and stroking his temple. As their intimacy grows, Mercier rests Chew’s head on his lap instead of on the pillow and they exchange looks, smiles and sotto voce conversation. The fragile cardiovascular meter glows intermittently, beats and fades, mirrored in the growing pliancy and languor of Chew’s body. We hear the sound of a dog barking but there is no danger in this quiet room. Chew takes off his clothes and Mercier bathes him with a flannel and (one hopes) warm water in the basin. There is a sense of a Pietà in the attitude of the two bodies, the one supporting and the other pliant in decline, though the powerful physical bond is contrasted with the banal sound of the weather forecast on the hospital TV (sound design by Dinah Mullen). Mercier helps Chew on with his clothes and lays down next to him. Their intimacy is highlighted with a kiss before Chew gets weaker and needs to be supported in his efforts to move around. The sounds of a game of billiards and teeth cleaning impinge on the quiet and then a music box plays. As Mercier moves Chew to a new position, Chew no longer has the strength to move his jar; it is now Mercier who holds his friend’s life in his hands. Chew motions to Mercier for his jar, which Mercier places in front of him. It is still faintly alight and beating, but not for long.

Ji-Eun Lee: Play. Back. Again. Then.

From a hospital cubicle we move into an abstract space delineated at its four corners by two dilapidated metal-framed, plastic-seated chairs stacked on top of one another, and a couple of roles of packing tape stuck or looped on to the upturned legs. It is an unsettling image of decay or abandon, yet when Ji-Eun Lee appears on stage as if by accident it is transformed into one of strange beauty and mystery. Lee is tall and thin with a serene, commanding expression that imbues every movement she makes with stillness and purpose. She is aware of her audience, confides in them and draws them inexorably into her intent.

She walks in cradling what appear to be three large oranges; one falls to the ground and she picks it up apologetically, only to drop another and so it goes on until she scoops them up into her skirt and sways across the stage like an exaggeratedly pregnant woman. The oranges are made of soft clay and she places each one carefully on the floor in a diagonal to one of the chairs, stepping back with exaggerated precision, one foot length at a time, crouching lower with each step, like a lioness about to pounce. She returns to her clay oranges and shapes one into a primitive human figure. She takes her time, time that is constantly slowing down to a ritual stillness. She concentrates on modeling each one in turn, working her fine fingers into the flesh of each, three incarnate forms. She steps back from her work and stretches her blouse over her head, looking at us as if through a shaman’s mask. She then marks out an arena by using each chair as a corner and pulling the clear tape from one corner to the next and on round three times. She climbs into her ring and places one clay figure on a chair at the back, and one on each of the front chairs. She now adds another level of meaning by marking out on the stage three small taped squares with an opening on one side with their openings facing each other. She hurries a little with the finishing of the third (the only inkling of an external constraint — the musical line — impinging on her ritual). She places each clay figure in its respective taped enclosure and surveys her work, regarding them each in turn. She responds to each with semaphoric arm signals, increasing the intricacy until she breaks into a beautiful whirlwind phrase of dance that seems to come out of nowhere, a rising storm that breaks and then reverts to stillness as suddenly as it starts. She collapses in front of one of her creations and looks at it with a private intensity, spreading her fingers, investing life into the figure. She frees it, placing it just outside its taped enclosure, and considers carefully. She looks at us to signal her desire to place herself in the enclosure. Having done so, she changes her mind: unlike her clay figures, she has the power to decide her own destiny. She looks at the figures, looks at us and makes her final move: out of the enclosure, out of the taped ring and off the stage. Play. Back. Again. Then is a breath of fresh air in which Lee has created a work of haunting beauty even as she questions her role as creator.

B-Hybrid Dance: Independently Dependent

An element of minimalism has pervaded the first two pieces. Mercier builds up his simple tale in broad pale green strokes with skin tones, while Lee’s work is more akin to calligraphy. Both are quiet and focused, but the final offering on the program, Brian Gillespie’s Independently Dependent, is neither one nor — more importantly — the other. There is no lack of movement among the six dancers but a serious lack of intent. Perhaps the program note threw me: ‘Independently Dependent…explores a girl’s transition as she is swooped from the comfort of childhood and engulfed by a system where independence and dependency go hand in hand. The pressures placed on this youth permits few things to pass into growth.’ The description on The Place’s website does nothing to alleviate the confusion: ‘A bitter-sweet performance in response to a following where innocence is stripped, imagination restrained, and simple play is modernised and materialised. Place in our code-ridden society conflicts with blissful childhood.’ With two such convoluted briefs it is no surprise the resulting choreography passes by without any apparent grasp of its own scenario. What is left is movement that is energetically inarticulate.