Doing Things with Bodies

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Bodies on stage constantly surprise me. The ways in which they tumble, contort and embrace; their capacity to startle and to move – in all senses of the word. The way they both betray and are betrayed. The small movements that become saturated with meaning. Watching contemporary dance – an art form I don’t see nearly enough of – I’m just as likely to be struck by the odd twist of a hand or flick of a head than by the overall execution of the choreography, about which I’m almost entirely ignorant. I find myself drawn instead to gesture and interaction; to the way that bodies meet, part and respond to one another in the space.

So how does a writer with a love for but embarrassing ignorance of dance respond to a programme of performance that is flirting with dance vocabularies in a venue usually dedicated to contemporary dance?

Forest Fringe’s fleeting residency at The Place is an intriguing meeting of performance practices, an inter-disciplinary experiment in curation and audience engagement. Over two nights, the organisations have co-curated a range of performances and installations that dance delicately around genre distinctions, standing at the intersection(s) between theatre, live art, contemporary dance, performance and participation. It’s both dance and not-dance.

In watching, I can only react to the bodies. I’m reminded, aptly, of the words of Forest Fringe’s Andy Field: “Theatre is a space in which we can ask questions that only our bodies can answer.” Theatre does thingswith bodies just as much as it does things with words. And the same goes for the performances I see at The Place: they do things with bodies.

In Gillie Kleiman’s DANCE CLASS: a performance, our bodies as audience members form the material of the piece. After being ushered into the room in darkness, we close our eyes and are invited to inhabit our own bodies more fully – specifically, our hands: their connection with the floor, their movement, the bones and muscles that form them. It feels part meditation, part piss-take, Kleiman delivering everything with her tongue more or less firmly in her cheek. Despite the lightly mocking flavour, though, it’s oddly relaxing. I find my fingers tingling as they press down into the ground or flex in the air.

Before long, though, our bodies are found to be wanting. Leading her strange, ever-shifting dance class, Kleiman is brisk and occasionally bullying, leaving no doubt as to who is in control here. She teaches; we try, we fail. Reflexes are too slow, muscles reluctant to mimic the moves demonstrated by Kleiman. Whose bodies are really important in this space? the piece begins to ask between laughs. Whose show is this? Lightly, playfully, tongue still planted in cheek, Kleiman prods at interaction and its often obscured power dynamics. Our bodies might be the raw material, but who in the end is sculpting them?

If 27 is also (intermittently) playful, that’s where its similarities with DANCE CLASS: a performance end. The relationship with dance in Peter McMaster’s tender, bruising show is less explicit, but nonetheless it is overwhelmingly about bodies – bodies that live and love and die. This is all wrapped up in a structure that resembles nothing so much as ritual, from its slowly burning incense sticks to its ceremonial scatterings of ash. The two bodies on stage in front of us – McMaster’s and fellow performer Nick Anderson’s – are here, visibly and thrillingly alive, in order to think together about death.

The title refers to the “27 club”, that morbidly romanticised group of musicians – including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse – who all died at the same age McMaster is now coming to terms with. Death, then, is a constant and in some ways alluring presence in 27, but so too is life in all its joy and heartbreak and messiness. In contrast to all the unthinkingly mythologising responses to those “live-fast-die-young” icons, 27 is complex and personal and humane, acknowledging the appeal of the myth while fusing it to material that is at once autobiographical and outward looking.

It’s the second time I’ve seen the show and the same moments knock the breath out of me all over again. They all have to do, I realise, not with design or words or even fully articulable ideas, but with just these two performing bodies. There’s a sequence in which McMaster struggles again and again to escape from Anderson’s half-embracing, half-smothering grasp, straining out of his arms over and over, all underscored by the devastating soundtrack of Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby”. Both men are naked by now – a nakedness that feels as gentle and generous as it is exposing – and their bare skin is lightly coated in the ash that clouds the air. Death hangs on them, yet they are so so alive.

Later, in one of the most powerfully simple gestures I’ve seen on a stage, the two men fall repeatedly into one another, stepping gradually further and further apart as they do so. Shoulder smacks into chest; arms grip arms. You can almost see the bruises blossoming in real time. There’s such trust in it, a trust and cooperation tinged at the same time with pain and a kind of heavy, unspoken grief. Each time their bodies slam into one another, it’s all I can do not to gasp with the bruising beauty of it. Bodies, at once sturdy and fragile, embracing, catching, supporting one another.

To talk about embodiment is often to be misleading. We aren’t brains in jars, we’re blood and muscle and sinew, and so everything is embodied – from sitting and reading a book to me typing these words, the smooth surface of the keys sliding under my fingertips. Still, there’s something about live performance that almost imperceptibly changes how we see and understand both the bodies on stage and, perhaps, our own, whether in our seats or up on our feet. And time and again, as at Forest Fringe, I find myself surprised.

Photo: Jemima Yong.

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Archives of grief

01

“Our cancerous culture atrophies through the very real lack of a will to live: to idolise death is to reinforce that.” – Jon Savage

I’m reading about Ian Curtis and I’m thinking about death.

Last week, in a moment of impulsiveness – the kind that always seems to seize me in bookshops – I bought a biography of the Joy Division frontman written by his widow Deborah Curtis. My fascination with the band and its lead singer was reignited by the BBC’s excellent documentary, in which Curtis’s absence gaped like an open wound, and by seeking out Jon Savage’s review of Unknown Pleasures immediately afterwards. Like so much that was written about Joy Division during their short life, it now feels eerily prescient, its question “where will it end?” having been provided with its devastating answer.

As Savage wrote following Curtis’s death in 1980, “Death is romantic, exquisitely sad; it provides an easy package, an easy full-stop”. This is the narrative not just of the rock’n’roll mythology that Savage is critiquing in the aftermath of Curtis’s suicide, but of a whole culture that stretches from Thomas Chatterton in the eighteenth century to the so-called “27 club” in the twentieth and twenty-first. Why else, after all, would I be sitting here writing this? There’s a continuing, irresistible fascination that surrounds all these short-lived figures: Romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats, youth icon James Dean, too too many musicians. Their names – Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse – have become a roll-call of romance, fame and tragedy.

It’s dangerous, yet alluring. Unlike Curtis, who spoke from his teenage years onwards about dying young, I’m far too giddily in love with life to understand this impulse, but I’m captivated by it nonetheless. There’s a stubborn romantic streak in me which is apparently drawn to the morbid as much as the beautiful. Or maybe it’s just intensely human; a heightened instance of that odd, doubled attitude that we have as a species towards death. I’m reminded of the chilling yet matter-of-fact opening of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, in which he writes about “the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead” at the same time as death is everywhere in society, decorating newspapers and television screens. We’re fascinated by those who die young, perhaps, because they represent a confrontation with the reality that the rest of us simultaneously stare down and avert our eyes from.

Knausgaard continues: “If the phenomenon of death does not frighten us, why then this distaste for dead bodies? Either it must mean that there are two kinds of death or that there is a disparity between our conception of death and death as it actually turns out to be, which in effect boils down to the same thing: what is significant here is that our conception of death is so strongly rooted in our consciousness that we are not only shaken when we see that reality deviates from it, but we also try to conceal this with all the means at our disposal.”

The reality of death gets covered up by the myth. Premature death becomes cultural immortality.

This contradictory attitude towards life and death is right at the (still beating) heart of 27. I’ve seen and written about Peter McMaster’s show twice now and still it haunts me, the sudden memory of images from it catching me out and leaving me slightly breathless again. It’s full of astonishingly, agonisingly beautiful moments, as the bodies of McMaster and fellow performer Nick Anderson embrace and struggle and support one another. In this physicality, it feels at times as though the show is a demonstration of being alive, together with all the joy and pain that involves.

But it’s also about death. The title is a reference to the “27 club”, the show in part acting as a sort of homage to all those artists. Their music forms the soundtrack, from “Break on Through to the Other Side” to “Back to Black” to the heart-punching “Cry Baby”. And it’s about McMaster, also 27 and teetering between past and future. There’s lots about growing up, letting go, moving on, but also – as McMaster makes explicit early on – about wanting to die. It’s a show about wanting to die and it’s a show about wanting to live.

The signs of death litter the stage, which is carved out as a space of ritual and liberally scattered with ash. McMaster and Anderson begin the show in skeleton bodysuits, a gesture both macabre and playful, before later stripping to their bare skin. For all its fascination with the ceremonies and myths of dying, though, 27 can’t get away from life. In a generous (and often, let’s be honest, squirmingly hilarious) sequence, the two naked performers invite us to touch parts of their bodies, to feel their hearts pounding in their chests. It’s a moment that seems to say “look how alive we all are”. Look how alive we all are, together, in this space.

“I’m a strange new kind of inbetween thing aren’t I
not at home with the dead nor with the living” – Antigone

In tragedy, death is a certainty. Throughout Ivo van Hove’s new version of Antigone at the Barbican, though, it’s even more of a constant presence than usual, hanging like a shroud over everything else. Van Hove’s is a production – and a protagonist – half in love with death. In Anne Carson’s precise, poetic translation, Antigone is repeatedly a bride to her grave, wedded to her end even while still alive. Clothed head to toe in black, from the moment she steps on stage Juliette Binoche gives the impression of being not quite of this world, as though she is only passing through on her way to the other side.

At one point, a member of the chorus (who all double interestingly as other players in the action) lingers over the word “uncanny”, pronouncing each syllable with conspicuous care. And this Antigone is uncanny. It feels oddly suspended, hovering on a plane between life and death. Initially, what I take for its cool detachment and flat delivery is distancing and frustrating. Instead of visceral immediacy, van Hove gives us poise and elegiac calm. Even when the outbursts of passion do arrive, as they must, they feel oddly controlled, as if every last word and gesture were carefully measured.

It’s easy to see, then, why it reads as lacklustre, but it’s all too deliberate for that. For me, the distance and control speaks of a shadowy elsewhere, a place saturated with grief and already half swallowed up by death. The cut-out circle at the back of Jan Versweyweld’s sleek, spare design is sun and moon and a bright, gaping portal to the next world. The same sense of ritual that frames 27 pervades Antigone – most obviously when Antigone defiantly buries her brother Polyneikes, but elsewhere too. And in a piece of doubling that is surely not accidental, the dead come back as messengers for the living.

It takes its time, but I find this controlled, funereal approach gradually tightening its grasp, and by the end I’m scrunched forwards in my seat, utterly compelled. But what is it that’s engrossing me? The supposed romance of a woman consumed by grief and obsessed with death? The uncanniness of this meeting between life and death, both painted in beautiful if muted colours? The possibility of taking aesthetic pleasure from something so painful?

There’s something stultifying, if strangely compelling, about this romantic myth of early death. It speaks of a culture in which the only conceivable future is one of oblivion and individual fame, rather than one that people work together to construct.

At the end of Antigone, after the drama has reached its devastating climax, the chorus detach themselves from the tragedy, gradually becoming dispersed individuals. The portal between life and death is closed up and these figures resume the busy, self-contained activities of modern life, oblivious to the suffering of Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon as he writhes on the raised surface of the stage, while the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” plays hauntingly underneath it all (“I’m gonna try to nullify my life,” Lou Reed sings). It’s a snapshot of atomised 21st-century life: we consume, we forget, we move on. Death is just another form of entertainment.

There’s more ambivalence at work in 27. If Antigone is detached and distanced, McMaster’s show is thrillingly – sometimes claustrophobically – close. We are never allowed to forget that we are in the same space, participating in this strange ritual alongside one another, whereas there’s a sense of a huge gulf between us in the audience and the small figures on stage at the Barbican. 27 doesn’t deny the appeal of dying young or the fascination of all those idolised dead, but it’s wrestling with something that is in many ways harder than that “easy full-stop”: the challenge of living, of moving into the future together.

Writing in response to Unlimited Theatre’s Am I Dead Yet?, I suggested that “if we can get better at dying, maybe we can get better at living too”. Our view of death – the ways in which we confront and conceptualise our inevitable end – says a lot about the culture in which we do our living. Perhaps, in order to really move forward, we need to rethink both.

“Turning around to the next set of lives
Wondering what will come next.” – Joy Division, “Passover” 

Joy Division

The Coming Storm

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Droplets of rain hammering the floor, at first light and then deafening.

Clouds of mist rising, obscuring, shifting the landscape.

Bodies finding shelter in one another.

Enter the storm.

It begins on Pero’s Bridge, a slender strip of metal suspended over the water at Bristol’s harbourside. At intervals, Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture envelops the bridge and the surrounding water, billowing in whichever direction the wind catches it. From a distance, figures hover insubstantially, as though walking on clouds; stepping across feels like a small act of trust, as the mist blurs the view ahead.

Mostly it’s an interruption in the architecture of the city, an instance of surprising, unexpected public art. Passersby pause to take photographs, while others linger in the fog that clings to hair and clothes. It’s a novelty, an attraction, an invitation.

Placed in the context of Bristol’s status as European Green Capital, however, it acquires more significance. Considered alongside the potentially catastrophic changes occurring to our climate, Fog Bridge feels anticipatory, its delicate beauty foreboding. It might be fog today, but what will it be tomorrow?

This is just the calm before the storm.

Teenagers are often seen as something of a gathering storm themselves, anarchically brewing trouble. But Canadian company Mammalian Diving Reflex ask us to see them – and ourselves – differently. On Saturday evening, following a coach journey into the dark, a group of teens lead us on a sprawling and chaotic roam through streets and fields, powerless to do anything but follow them. The usual power dynamic is flipped.

As with Fog Bridge, there’s a sense of event. Our large group of walkers swells through the streets, observed by curious figures through parted curtains. It’s an unruly disruption, but not of the kind we’re used to associating with urban teenagers. Nightwalks with Teenagers is rebellious but gentle, riotous yet tender. We are instructed to hold hands, to hug one another, to gather close. From the beginning, a fragile sense of community is created.

This begins to break apart as we trundle through suburban streets and along treacherously muddy paths. The audience is large and spread out, inhibiting the intimacy that the event seems to be reaching for. It’s full of individual moments, though, that are both striking and bizarre: a panoramic view of the city laid out below us, lights twinkling in the gloom; an invitation to dance; a rowdily improvised bit of storytelling; and, perhaps strangest of all, a detour to a house with a Mini Cheddar-loving pet duck. Our adolescent guides revel in it all, taking up the reins with glee.

If this generation are the coming storm, then bring on the downpour. 

Rumblings of thunder shudder through True West, Lone Twin’s unique take on and around Sam Shepard’s domestic play. Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters are Shepard’s pair of brothers, locked in bitter and often absurd rivalry, while a chorus sat around a table stand in for all the other roles. It’s small and low-fi, but somehow oddly explosive.

There are gloriously naff sound-effects, showers of multi-coloured confetti, overflowing cans of beer and a brilliant moment with a golf club and an ill-fated toaster. For all the stuff, though, it feels more like a story about stories: how we tell them, who tells them, how our culture has encouraged us to shape them. Delivered deadpan by Whelan and Winters, lines from the “authentic” Western one brother is writing leap out in all their ridiculous beauty.

In their programme note, Lone Twin describe True West as a “cover version” of Shepard’s play. It’s an appealing way of describing their relationship with the text, which is as irreverent as it is admiring, riffing playfully on Shepard’s lines. It’s also apt, as music – country pop specifically – threads its way through the piece. It’s there throughout the festival too, right down to the listening recommended in the programmes, offering space to think and feel and explore. The curious are welcome here.

Music also throbs throughout O, as lightning repeatedly threatens to strike. There’s a suspended feeling of discomfort all the way through Project O’s show, leaving us braced for the storm to break even as we laugh in our seats. Performers Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small ask us to watch and to notice ourselves watching, unsettling us with the anticipation of how our responses might be turned back around. It’s our collective gaze that really feels under the spotlight.

The two Os most in question here seem to be objectification and othering, both of which are obliquely referenced by Hemsley and Johnson-Small’s alternately playful and aggressive dance moves, which in turn reflect the reductive presentation of black female bodies in popular culture. It’s often funny, very funny, but laughs escape only uncertainly and in the knowledge that the whole thing could flip on its head any moment. With small gestures, the mood suddenly changes; the weather shifts.

The storm clouds converge on Saturday night over The Old Fire Station. A tornado of pulsing music and flashing lights rages at the heart of the festival, along with showers of glitter and the occasional crash of thunder. 

The festival party, framed as an immersive club night, sits alongside Fog Bridge as one of the most public-facing aspects of this year’s In Between Time. Festival regulars are joined by hundreds of fabulously dressed party-goers, decked out as clouds, lightning bolts, poncho-clad stormchasers. It’s a real event. Peppering partying with art, it shows how this kind of work can connect with a wider local audience, who seem to be largely absent from the festival’s daytime offerings.

How can that invitation be extended even further?

After the storm, the flood. There’s a post-apocalyptic flavour to Jo Hellier’s Flood Plans, which hints at an all too probable weather-ravaged future. Rather than narrative, though, it relies on feeling and evocation. Submerged in darkness, we’re pelted with deluges of sound: rain falling, waves crashing, wind howling. The volume rises and rises until the noise rattles through each last sinew of the body.

The aural onslaughts are punctuated with moments of human fragility, survival and connection. Isolated on the bare, black stage, Hellier and fellow performer Yas Clarke appear brittle and insubstantial, voices whistling weakly into the void. It is those bodies, though, that offer the most memorable and affecting moments. Hellier and Clarke first struggle and then embrace, their limbs surprising us with all the new ways two people can fit around one another. Against the force of storm and flood, they wrap themselves together.

There’s a different sense of aftermath to Ishimwa’s Niyizi, which takes on the character of searching. History, culture and identity both intertwine and clash, as the performance tests out ways of reconciling self and heritage. Through the separation of video and live performance, Ishimwa suggests both dislocation and simultaneity, his movements in the room frequently mirroring those on the screen, but always just the tiniest fraction of a second out of time.

In the first filmed dance sequence, blown up on the big screen at the back of the stage, Ishimwa sits in profile, twisting and turning. He writhes as if in an effort to crawl out of his own skin, a skin that he then – like the series of dresses he wears – gets more and more comfortable in. There’s a sense of struggle to it, but also of ritual and finally of celebration.

Peter McMaster’s 27 is ritual too, at times morbid and at times joyous. It offers two visions of the post-storm world: one of death and one of hope. These two forces tussle throughout the performance, as the experience of getting older and finding one’s place in the world veers between destructive despair and a liberating gesture of letting go.

The title is a reference both to McMaster’s age and the age at which Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse – whose music weaves its way through the show – all died. Death, whether in the skeleton bodysuits that McMaster and Nick Anderson open the show wearing or the ash that is scattered ceremonially over floor and bodies, is thus a constant presence.

While there are moments when it stutters, the whole piece is so open and tender that it begs forgiveness for any flaws. If anything, the flaws feel necessary, colouring its heart-aching sincerity and vulnerability. Stripped bare, both literally and figuratively, McMaster and Anderson share with us their bruises. And as in Flood Plans, bodies interact in unexpected ways, resisting, embracing, leaning against and catching one another.

There is a storm coming, no doubt about it. But perhaps the response, as 27 begins to intimate, lies in the connections we are able to forge.

Photo: Max McClure.