Originally written for The Guardian.
Major Tom, the long-eared, irresistibly endearing basset hound lying in the corner of the room, lets out a low disapproving howl. Awwww, is someone not happy? Is someone not getting enough attention? Oh well, I did come here to talk to Major’s owner, the performance artist Victoria Melody. But Major is clearly keen to get in on the action. He is, after all, a born performer. He even has a show named after him.
Using live performance and film footage, Major Tom follows the attempts of both dog and owner to prove their beauty: Major in championship dog shows, Melody in national beauty pageants. The piece is an attempt to show “the beauty world from a woman’s eyes and a dog’s eyes”. And its conclusion is that the two are “not that dissimilar”. Major was told by judges that his ribcage was too big, while Melody was advised to lose weight.
It might seem like an odd premise for a theatre piece, but Melody’s performance work has always been rooted in real – and often idiosyncratic – people and situations, her primary interest being “the funny things we do as humans”. Trained as a fine artist, she crossed over into theatre with Northern Soul, a one-woman show recounting her adventures in pigeon fancying and northern soul dancing. What is it that makes her embed herself among such clusters of idiosyncrasy, throwing herself headlong into their worlds and then shining a light on them? “Curiosity,” she says. “Which is quite a nice word for being nosy.”
Major Tom, which opens in London next month, is a bit of a departure for Melody, though, thanks to the element of competition. Whereas in the past she was a participant, with everyone on the same side, both the dog shows and the beauty pageants pitted her (and Major) against the individuals whose world she was exploring. The show was initially going to be just about all the dog contests Major was entered in – including the one where he wins biggest ears in a show in south-east England – until Melody started to feel a growing sense of guilt. If she was going to force him to compete, and subject him to a judging panel, shouldn’t she put herself through a similar experience? So, somewhat reluctantly, she entered Mrs UK and found that her discomfort didn’t last long. She won Mrs Brighton with relative ease in 2012, before moving on to the bigger challenge of Mrs UK. “Soon I just wanted to win everything,” she says.
And so did everyone else. Melody often found the dog shows surprisingly hostile: following a string of losses, one judge told her she’d be better off investing in a new dog. By contrast, she was pleasantly surprised by the warmth shown by her fellow beauty contestants, contradicting stereotypes. “There was no bitchiness, no backstabbing, no dresses going missing – none of that.”
Major Tom performs alongside her in the show and, apparently, isn’t very good at doing what he’s supposed to do. This means he often steals the limelight from Victoria at precisely the wrong moment. “His comic timing is genius,” she says. “He always ruins my stories.”
Melody likes to embed herself as fully as possible in the worlds she investigates, developing real and meaningful relationships along the way. Humour is a vital tool. “I’m able to make the work that I do because I’m quite funny and down to earth,” she says. “I think I endear myself to people. I put them at their ease: they believe I won’t exploit them.”
Although Melody and Major were there to be judged, she is determined not to pass judgment herself. She describes Major Tom as being about “the beauty myth and the oppressive function of that”. But she is quick to qualify this, saying: “My shows are only about direct experience. I’m talking about these worlds from the inner sanctum, seen through my eyes.” In the show, although she is frequently – and hilariously – critical of herself, she does not directly criticise those around her. “I don’t tell people what to think. I leave it to the audience to form their own opinions, because audiences are clever and can decide for themselves. They don’t need to be fed something on a plate.”
Melody’s shows often leave the audience wondering about the extent to which they are authentic. Although she insists that the stories she tells in Major Tom are all “absolutely true”, she does also seem to welcome the ambiguity that surrounds the show, the blurring of art and reality.
The process is demanding and frequently takes over her life. But when it does so, Melody sees it as a good sign: it suggests that she’s on the path to something promising. “When it gets to the stage of me not knowing if I’m doing this for my research or for my life, that’s when I know a project’s progressing. One of the interesting things, for me, is that intersection between art and real life.”
She reaches for a comparison and plumps for Fountain, the famous conceptual work by Marcel Duchamp that challenged how we define art. “I see Major Tom as my urinal,” she says.
Photo: Linda Nylind.