Category Archives: Reviews

Without Stars James Cousins

Without Stars/There We Have Been: this bird has flown

24 October 2015.

The Cambridge Junction presented a double bill of dance pieces last week by the James Cousins Company, and when I found out that the show was based on the novel Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, I went to buy the book a few days beforehand. The first, longer piece is called Without Stars and the second, shorter piece There We Have Been.

I only read the first two chapters before seeing the show, so I had the interesting experience of being told one story across two different art forms: it began as words and continued as dance. The second piece was a retelling of the story from a different character’s perspective, so it felt like seeing a single thread of story, refracted.

The performance begins with the dropping of complete darkness in the theatre, which felt like being washed with black, while a metallic, dystopian roar sounded. And then the roar stopped, and the stage lights came up to show us three people dancing to a scratchy, vintage record, ‘You Always Hurt the Ones You Love’ by an old crooner. Love, hurt and memory are the themes of this story by Murakami.

The main character is a young man called Toru, who is in love with Naoko, who was the girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki. The plot bombshell that drops in the second chapter is that Kizuki committed suicide just before they all left school to go off to university. Toru and Naoko embark on a romance that is inextricably bound up with Kizuki’s death.

At this point, I moved from discovering the story in words to discovering it through the dance. The staging played constantly and thoughtfully with light and shadow, and the dancer playing the part of Naoko, Chihiro Kawasaki, would dance alone in patchy low light so that flashes of a sinewed leg curved into a shape of perfect beauty would be both there and not there. This was a significant foreshadowing, as well as an evocative portrayal of the aching tension in the two lovers’ relationship, with Toru trying to keep Naoko in the world, in the present, via his love, as she brokenly drifts back again and again to the memory of Kizuki, to the past. It was also a beautiful way of exploring Murakami’s play with the idea of memory, and how it can be there and then…not there.

The first piece feels like it is told from Toru’s perspective, and it travels through different moods of love, depicting tenderness, sensuality, longing, and the ravages of loss. The four dancers – portraying the two main lovers, the memory/ghost of Kizuki, and another lover for Toru – twist and tangle together in patterns that form, break apart and reconfigure, melting into each other with luxurious tactility and an ethereal grace, the lightness of which felt symbolic of the emotional realms of loving. The depiction of grief is stark and powerful: Kawasaki curls and caves her chest as if shockwaves of grief are resounding through it, and her face is a perfect, shocked, mad blankness during Without Stars, as if her spirit has been spun away from her body by this trauma, and she is not really there as Toru tries to save her, to bring her back by loving her.

The second piece There We Have Been reflected differently on the novel, and I enjoyed the ambiguous energies of the way the two different perspectives combined with each other. This piece allows us into Naoko’s inner world, which is so poignantly impenetrable in Without Stars. In this piece, she tenderly returns Toru’s love. There is much more light and hope, with a bright horizontal beam of yellow light shining on the dancers portraying Naoko and Toru, and this time Kawasaki gazes lovingly at the dancer playing Toru as he holds her up, supporting her in various ways while she turns, contorts, climbs up and out, it seems, of this world. It feels as if this second reflection of the novel looks upon death with a gentler existential gaze, seeing it as a transformation, and something peaceful, in contrast to the agonisingly dark portrayal of it from Toru’s perspective in the first piece.

I really enjoyed this show, and I felt quite dreamy, sated and contemplative by the end of it. I would have happily drifted out of the theatre and home in solitude. But the lobby after the show was like a pinball machine of friends as I headed for the door, and each of them gave me their impressions of the piece. To each person I asked, ‘Have you read the book?’ And so I collected refractions of perceptions of this story that came to me already refracted. One friend said that he didn’t engage with it particularly well, but then he paused and wondered if that was because he had something else on his mind. He said that he hadn’t read the book but pointed out how important it is for the work to stand on its own. I agree, and it made me consider the power of allusion and the way our prior knowledge affects our perception of any piece heavily drawing upon another work.

Another friend said that she thought the show lacked dynamism, that it played out within too narrow a frame of expression. She also hadn’t read the book. I thought a lot about this and came to the conclusion that I agreed with her, too – because although I deeply enjoyed the expressions of the show, I could see that I already had the frame of the story in my mind – setting, characters, plot arc and themes – and they weren’t all really fully brought to life by the two pieces; part of my exhilarated admiration for many of the artistic choices came from already knowing what aspect of the original they were drawing upon – dancing with. My imagination, via the power of imported allusory material, supplied what the dance did not always provide in its separate act of storytelling. But then a third person I spoke with who had not read the book was completely, utterly besotted with the piece.

Allusion is tricky artistic material to work with… I’ve always been fascinated by it – it calls to me, too. The specific beauty of a particular piece of art is such a seductive, beckoning thing. It is compelling to want to explore, play, dance with these beauties – to pay homage, to unearth seams of gold laying unexplored in the original, to import, reflect, re-consider. Without Stars/There We Have Beenreflected much beauty and depth in its dance with another artwork, and my response was more towards the besotted end of the spectrum, and so perhaps some of this difference in perception we need to consign to the question mark that spins at the intercepts of the axes of personal taste and quality in artistic expression.

This essay was published originally in Exeunt Magazine on 24 October 2015.


Of Riders and Running Horses

Of Riders and Running Horses: the roof under our feet

17 September 2015.  It’s Thursday night in Cambridge, and the way into the show I am about to see,Of Riders and Running Horses by Dan Canham’s dance theatre company Still House, is a long climb up a winding, breezeblock stairwell to the top of the five-storey car park next to the Cambridge Junction. I eventually emerge into open sky on the rooftop, and it is real dusk. The remaining daylight is bright strips of colour smudged together over in the west, and it’s fully dark in the east. Live, energetic Afro-Cuban music is blasting from speaker towers around the perimeter of a brightly lit performance space, made by a live band of two musicians, Sam Halmarack and Luke Harney (AKA Typesun), who are nested within a tightly packed cluster of varied percussion instruments, guitars and electronic music kit at one end.

The audience settles, the drumming goes quiet, and then into the silence, Sam Halmarack sings a cappella – a beautiful, simple melody and interesting, subtle lyrics, which after a time is grabbed by electronics and amplified, sustained, and layered. And then percussion comes back in, with fierce drums and surprising syncopations, building to an intense, exciting jungle beat. The first dancer jumps in, and her movement is like an exact embodiment of the music in dance form. Then four other dancers come out of the audience one by one to join her, five women in urban street clothes, and I wish I could join them, too, because the music is so strongly beckoning.

They spin in interlocking patterns of individual movements, and I wonder how much of the music and dance is improvised, because it’s tight, but there are ripples where they catch ideas and energy from each other, clearly listening to each other with their bodies. Eventually, after what feels like a long time, they fall into unison, and this feels wonderful to me on some deep, primal level – it feels like an expression of the constant elemental progression from times of wildness into harmony.

Then the music quiets again, and together they explore small, subtle movement, stillness, pauses and they are still like a human embodiment of the percussive music – which is now slow, with shakers and rattling metal – and it is as if the women are cymbals themselves, or streams of air shaken by percussive vibrations. Then four dancers drift away, and one is left, moving quietly to a long, low, electric bass drone.

She moves like she is underwater, and again it occurs to me that this piece feels elemental, like a depiction of nature. But whenever my mind tries to capture this show and cage it within a description or theme, the abstract fights wildly back, the performance saying, ‘I just am’ and the dance saying, ‘I just am…the music’ and the music saying ‘I just am…the dance’. This piece is a lush, abstract expression and exploration of feelings.

And at this point, when I have been fully captured by the performance, and I have been prompted into thoughtful consideration of the axis between programmatic and abstract art, the dancers shift into a section of the piece that is like the interplay of different musical voices working in harmony: they line up and combine like fingers pressing down the keys of a piano, overlapping in different patterns like individual notes making different chords. Then they start calling out, noises that sound like animal calls, and the music grows bright and joyous underneath them, and eventually they break out of the patterns into pure wildness again, and I notice their dance is sending rumbling vibrations through the roof under our feet.

I loved every moment and every element of this piece. The musicians created walls and waves and trickles and forests of sound, moving expertly and creatively through Electro-Indie, Techno, Electronic, Afro-Cuban and Santaria music. The dancers – Anna Kaszuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tanya Richam-Odoi, Tilly Webber and Stephanie McMann – were brilliant and energetically, symbiotically connected to the music in a way that was extremely satisfying and fertile. The staging – the night sky, big sound and bright lights – created a sense that we were at a rare, artistic, rooftop rave. And after an hour of having all the cells in my body dancing to the music, but having to hold myself outwardly still, the thing I was hoping for happened: the last thing the dancers did after our final claps and cheers was to pull the audience into the dance, and the musicians kept playing, for us now.

Produced by MAYK

Directed by Dan Canham with associate director Laura Dannequin
Cast Includes Anna Kaszuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tanya Richam-Odoi, Tilly Webber, and Stephanie McMann
Original Music Luke Harney and Sam Halmarack

[This review was originally published in Exeunt Magazine 17 September 2015.]


The BE Festival: Democratic and Delicious

3 July 2015.  The BE Festival is a gathering of contemporary European performance and takes place at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre; when my mate Nicky and I arrive we are told to go around the back of the building.  It’s a strange, deserted alleyway that we walk down at first, and then, turning a corner, we see a smoking enclosure on the pavement filled with women wearing tea dresses accessorized edgily and men in retro blazers.  We look at each other, at our own edgily accessorized tea dresses, and laugh.  I say, ‘I think we have found our people.’  And then we talk about the strangeness of the urge to join a tribe, how mysterious a thing it is to be compelled to align, to dress this way and not another, how complex are the patterns of society as they weave together.  I have always had complicated feelings about this urge in myself, because I want to love everybody, to align with everybody.  The theme of the festival this year is Democracy, and so this question of how we align, malign, agree, dissent and weave together was running through the various artistic explorations in many different fascinating and complex ways.

The prevailing aesthetic of the festival is this edgy, retro style: the festival Hub was the massive loading bay at the back of the theatre, which was dressed with curated selections of antique furniture clustered cosily in a large seating area with a bar, and antique bric-a-brac adorning the wide corridors leading off to the studio theatre and the main theatre stage. A mixture of audience, performers and festival workers were drinking, lounging and talking in the sofas. A pale rose chaise longue was enjoyably incongruous against the concrete floor and breeze block bricks of this backstage turned into a new sort of theatre.  The democracy-themed visual arts installations occupied space like wild oases, where people clustered to observe and participate.

The first show of the night was Correction by the VerTeDance contemporary dance company from the Czech Republic.  The piece began with the stage in darkness and beautiful melodic electronic music with voices singing in harmony, accompanied by a live clarinet ensemble called the Clarinet Factory.

Seven dancers were revealed when the stage lights came up, standing in a straight line, all wearing the same brown workman’s boots and dressed in casual street clothes.  The introductory music faded into silence, and the dancers began to move, with their feet locked onto the stage floor in their identical boots, swaying into each other like a Newton’s Cradle, passing the energy of motion along the line, recalling the properties of physics, the finite energies of material reality – but also the way we as people touch and influence each other with our human energy.

The dance would go on to explore the different patterns of our energetic interactions, first in sweet and funny moments of capitulation and rebellion to the charge being passed along, and then in increasingly disturbing displays of aggression.  This was a performance that struck a deep chord with all of the people I spoke to on this night of the festival, and I think this was because it revealed patterns of behaviour operating between all of us, all of the time, much of the time unconsciously, and these patterns of energy operate on both micro and macro levels of society.

In one part of the dance, one of the dancers was pushed down and left to struggle back up on his own, and then once he was back up he lashed out viciously to the next person along, in a complete tracery of the dynamic of recycled violence.  This is something that nations do (Israel, I’m looking at you, bra) and that families, friends, politicians, workmates, lovers and strangers do.  And then the dance takes the expenditure of energy on conflict to its extreme point, and all the dancers fight each other violently until finally they are exhausted, spent and lifeless on the floor.  The sense that came ringing clearly out of this moment was that violence is just a waste of human energy and beauty.

And then the music came back, recorded voices singing in harmony, and the clarinets fluttered back into a thoughtful, hopeful swell, and gradually the dancers pulled themselves up to standing.  What happened next reminded me of something Aristotle said about fiction/art/’poetry’ – that poetry is more important than history, because ‘the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.’  I felt a frustrated exhaustion and sad recognition of the futile cycles of conflict the dancers portrayed as the piece wound to its conclusion, our sad, shared history.  And then when it felt like I/we couldn’t take it anymore, a shift happened, and then came the surprising introduction of a hopeful ‘what if?’ into the dance.

The dancers slowly began introverted, soulful dances all on their own, eyes shut. Then gradually they harmonised, opened their eyes, and the dance became wild, joyous, free, individual and shared.  My heart rose up, and I wished hard that all our interactions as a society ‘might be’…like this.  Another reason why the show was so powerful was its technical beauty – the movement of the dancers was precise, agile and evocative, and perfectly orchestrated according to the thematic progression of the piece.  It was brilliant.  It was hard to believe this piece was only a half hour.

The next show shocked the hell out of me, for various reasons, and explored a sharply realistic and extremely important corner of the democracy theme: if you don’t already have it, how, how, how, do you create it? How does revolution feel, what are the details, what do you actually do, what does it do to you?  This was a theatre piece for three actors called MOUVMA! by Collectif Corps Citoyen, a collaboration between Tunisian and Italian artists, presented in Arabic, French and Italian with subtitles.  It was about the beginning of democratic revolt in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

Before this show started, the festival co-directors, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, came out on stage and read a statement written by the actors.  I hadn’t seen the news – it was Friday 26 June, the day that Islamic State gunmen from Tunisia opened fire on a beach in the Tunisian resort town of Port EL Kantaoui and killed 35 people, mostly foreign tourists.  The statement said, ‘We will have to explain to the world that we are not like them.  This show is our only tool to ask questions and keep hope alive’.

The show began with the house lights up and the three actors, one man and two women, chatting brightly, lightly to the audience: ‘Hi!’, ‘Ça va?’, ‘Hello!’, ‘Ça va?’, ‘Hi!’  This devolved into a comic confusion in different languages, with the three talking over each other, all saying ‘Are you okay? So what’s up? How are you? How are your Studies? Your job? Your family? Your Friends? For Me, it’s going so well, very well thank you.’ Then the falsity of the surface greeting crumbled, the idea of ‘being okay’ crumbled, and they were not okay, and ‘nowhere’ was anything ‘okay’.

Then the scene broke up and they scrambled into various patterns, exploring and depicting the actions and details of revolt. One of the most powerful moments was when we are told an eyewitness’s account of a man who sets himself on fire for a political protest.  We hear the details:

‘But I was close enough to see that the man was wearing glasses. He took the can and threw it. He shook. He took the lighter again with the same gesture.’

At another point, the stage lights went dark, and a film was projected on the whole of the backstage wall, which was real footage of the chaos during the political revolt.  Because of the darkness on stage, the actors in grey light blended into the moving shadows of the projection.  They shouted out, became like people in the film made real on stage.  They tell us, tell each other, ‘we have to protect our heads’, and ‘the police have orders to kill’.  One of the powerful effects of this show was that the dimensions of theatre and reality warped together, to bring the audience across the separating devices of time, distance, culture, the almost fictional-feeling remove of the news on telly and in newspapers.  The show was exploding the line between real and not-real, near and far, using the magical properties of the un-real theatre to collapse distance.

After this the scene dissolves and the lights come up again, and quietly, seriously, they ask each other, ‘Ça va?’  And this question,Are you ok? meant so much more now than at the innocent beginning of the show.  It meant, ‘have you survived?’ This circling back the idea of being okay, now heavy with the deeper weight of love and fear of loss amidst the breaking passion of revolution, was beautiful theatre.

The show ended with one of the actors staring at canisters filled with green fluid that have been on the stage all along.  He moves towards one of them, and the other two rush to stop him.  He keeps lunging for the canisters, and they keep trying to stop him.  The lights go out, and he splashes the liquid around himself, the house lights go dark, and then they start striking matches.  In the dim light of the matches, he says, ‘And so I did it, right?  Because I had a rotten life before.’

This show felt like all the words I have ever read about political protest and revolution come to life in 3-D, several metres away from me.  And what came through most clearly is that it is an edge in the mind, reached collectively, a tipping point in the mind, in many minds.  It felt like desperate, urgent reportage more than theatre, and like we were brushing up against the particular elements, the details and nuances of revolution. It was powerful and brilliant.

The format of the festival is designed around sociability, and every night during a hiatus in the performances the audience, performers and festival staff sit down together to a dinner cooked by London-based food artists Blanch and Shock. Nicky and I had Toulouse sausages, a duck egg, lentil, tomato and red pepper stew, fennel, spring onion and parsley salad and yoghurt. I kept asking myself, ‘what is artistic about this food?’ as I chewed and talked to Nicky and a lovely older couple called Liz and Peter (who were avid Birmingham theatre goers), and in the end I decided that the way each different flavour mixed with the others on the plate in perfect harmony was extremely democratic, as well as delicious.

The festival programmed lighter offerings post-dinner; the first was a thoughtful and humorous solo circus performance by Darragh McLoughlin, called The Whistle, which was produced by Squarehead Productions of Ireland.  Darragh asked us to close our eyes then open our eyes in patterns as he blew a whistle hanging around his neck, playing with illusion and perception (and our honesty) in charming and interesting ways.  The piece had the feel of gentle clowning and juggling mixed with a sort of zen minimalism and showed some touches of real abstract artistic brilliance.  At one point when we were supposed to have our eyes closed, Darragh asked us, ‘Am I still performing if no one is watching me?’

The show traced the trajectory of learning and failure in the moments where Darragh allowed us to open our eyes to the backstage moments of a juggling trick, to the dropped balls and failed attempts.  He reminded me afterwards, during the disco party in the festival Hub that closed the night, that circus is an art with an intensely crystallised focus on perfection, and it was poignant to be shown the circus performer’s private moments of struggle, out of which radiated a more expansive philosophical significance.  It was a lovely show.

The final performance of the night was my personal favourite.  It was a contemporary theatre piece called Of Miracles and Wonders, Optimistic Conference by Fundación Collado Van Hoestenberghe of Spain, which is the artistic partnership of the two performers, Ernesto Collado of Spain and Barbara Van Hoestenberghe of Belgium.

Ernesto was dressed in a powder blue suit, and Barbara in a white minidress.  Onstage there were two desks with laptops, some musical instruments on Barbara’s side of the stage, including electric guitar and small bar chimes, and on Ernesto’s desk a pitcher of red juice.  There were some potted plants scattered around and a large projection screen at the back of the stage.  The show begins in silence, with text appearing on the projection screen, in imperfect English, one line at a time:

‘I love this moment.

All this expectations…

It’s like a pear.

More precisely like the stalk of a pear.

Because the stalk of a pear is not yet a pear.

It’s still the branch.

This is to say, the tree.

And this is to say a fractal infinity of possibilities.

And this takes us directly to quantum physics.’

After each line appears, the audience laughs, and this is the first sound of the piece.  I started to feel the building of an irrepressible exuberance and delight at the way these ideas were unfolding, and this only deepened with every revolution of the show, which was a succession of sweet, absurd, comic, poetic vignettes.

After the silent dialogue and laughter of the beginning, Ernesto takes over as our guide through the show, and we are whooshed down many more rabbit holes and twirled through dancing concepts, which left me feeling pleasantly drunk on ideas.  We go though philosophical contemplations of loss – lost words, lost time – via  a lost lighter; through consciousness, dreams, conscience, and peaceful societies via the Spanish siesta; through the inscription on the Delphic oracle’s temple, ‘know thyself’ via Ikea, with interjections of Shakespeare and musings on John Wayne.

The show was so eclectic, allusory and sporadic, that it is natural to question its unity, its framing, which narratively was the ‘Optimistic Conference’ of the title, but the wildly veering angles felt oddly well connected – I think by the thickness of the sense of wonder, the other material under consideration in the show, which was being quite consciously and deliberately spun by the staging, the wonderfully poetic text and thoughtful performances by Ernesto and Barbara.  At one point Ernesto quotes Montaigne: ‘If we give the name of miracles and wonder to everything our reason cannot comprehend, are they not continually presented before our eyes?’, and I felt this was the unifying element of the show, the contemplation of the quality of wonder.

Aftewards, talking about this show with Nicky, she said, ‘I wanted the crazy to flower more’, sagely guessing that this was a longer show cut down to fit the parameters of the festival.  The design of the festival is structured so that the shows are about 30 minutes, to fit four performances into each evening more comfortably for the audience.  Ernesto told us afterwards that the show is normally an hour, and they found it difficult to cut it down to a smaller size.  It was, ahem, wonderful, anyway, but I would love to see the full version sometime.

We felt this was true for ‘MOUVMA!’ as well, and we reflected that most contemporary theatre pieces are about an hour, and that it is rare to see shorter ones – but interestingly, I felt the power of both shows despite the truncation, and I deeply enjoyed all of the shows I saw and was grateful to the festival for giving me such a generous offering of brilliant European performance.  I was also grateful to the festival for giving us a disco in the festival Hub with DJ Glyn Phillips until 2 a.m. after all the shows finished. I was crackling with wonder, with art, theatre, humanity, hope, and what I really needed was a dance.

[This review was published in Exeunt Magazine on 3 July 2015]


Figs in Wigs

The Watch Out Festival at Cambridge Junction, A Review

On Saturday 23 May 2015 the Cambridge Junction presented Watch Out, a day-long festival of contemporary performance which follows in the footsteps of their previous festivals Night Watch and Sampled. I studied the line-up ahead of time, and it was interesting, as always, to consider the different dimensions of theatrical experience: The Before, The During, and The After.

When I was looking at the programme during The Before, I was excited and curious, and aware that this flat piece of paper with its marketing words and images would become something else – something large, 3D, and stuffed with glitter, humanity, sound and significance in The During. And I knew that in The After, some of the ideas would take root in my being and reconfigure my understanding of myself and the world around me.

And that felt like the distinguishing curatorial impulse behind the festival: to explore the power of new ideas and the way they radiate through performance. And in this Watch Outwas a roaring success: every single show had a steely, spiky, sharp, bright or brilliant idea around which the performative elements cohered in riotously inventive and engaging ways. Many of the shows were previews or premieres, so there was a newness and rawness to some of them, but it was a testament to the quality of the assembled performers that they all delivered artistically.

There was a range of different types of performance – theatre, dance, spoken word, burlesque, music, digital – and so often in this historical moment genres tangle together in fascinating ways.  To some extent, most of the shows were tangles, but with a predominating performance type. Two of these pleasing tangles were A Room for All Our Tomorrows by Igor and Moreno and Swagga by Project O with Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt. Both came under the category of dance in the programme, but they both incorporated sound, singing and spoken words. Swagga was the first show I saw, and it was an interesting study of the themes of fat, femininity, otherness and acceptance. The performance felt like the second hand of a clock, sweeping around the angles of the issues one by one and arriving at a conclusion where roundness and largeness finally cast off society’s aspersions and recall the goddess aspect of femininity. I particularly enjoyed the spoken word elements of the show and the song lyrics, which were poetic and deeply affecting. This show didn’t completely coalesce, in the sense that its different explorations felt slightly unconnected to each other, but it was powerful and engaging.

A Room for All Our Tomorrows is one of the shows that is still glowing brightly in my imagination. Maybe that’s partly because Igor and Moreno’s production team have such a strong grasp of the craft of light and staging.In a warmly-lit space with a stylish, square wooden table and chairs, over coffee, Igor Urzelai and Moreno Solinas use movement, sound and singing to portray the elemental cycles that move through relationships as two people trigger fury, frustration, and finally healing, in each other. The set and costume design by Kasper Hansen created an Ikea-esque ideal appearance and environment for the two characters in this piece, against which the real tensions that arise in an intimate relationship poignantly raged. As artists, Igor and Moreno are interested in exploring catharsis through live performance, and the way they expressed frustration – by a ‘conversation’ of grunts and screams – had the audience falling apart with laughter … and probably sent everyone home infused with a greater degree of humorous compassion for their own relationships. It was a pure, unadulterated delight.

Watch Out balanced the different flavours of artistic transmission well and programmed an engaging set of spoken word, burlesque, digital and live art in contrast to the more abstract explorations of the dance shows. The poet Rowan James gave a preview of his new show Easy for You to Say, which is spoken word refracted into different forms – poetry, storytelling and rap – in collaboration with beatboxer Marv Radio. It was an energetic and intelligent show about the question of ‘normality’ and perceptions of ability via James’ personal story of being diagnosed with a disability. Some of the word formulations were incredibly beautiful – proper silvery poetry, deep and bright, and I really enjoyed it.

The Cube by digital arts company Circa69 was one of the most surprising and exciting shows at Watch Out, and everyone was talking about it. It was a one-on-one performance with the artist, Simon Wilkinson, the director of Circa69, where I was fitted with the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset designed for 3-D gaming. Here it was turned to the purpose of engineering an artistic encounter in a new world, and it blew my mind, with its newness, the Dali-esque imagined American desert that appeared around me in a small room upstairs in the Junction, and a compelling story.

My favourite show at the festival was Show Off by Figs in Wigs, a group of five conceptual artists who are all women – Rachel Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots. I’ve been hearing great things about them for years, but I have always managed to narrowly miss seeing them (because of, um, either lateness or drunkenness, as at last year’s Night Watch festival). And when I say, ‘I’ve heard great things’, I mean that I’ve seen the people saying the great things come out at the end of a show, and they are sort of glowing phosphorescently with irrepressible smiles and look like they are about to break into song and dance, and their eyes are darting around looking at the world faster than usual because their minds have been so deliciously stoked.

Now that I’ve finally seen a Figs in Wigs show, I understand why that is. They are a real riot. Show Off is ostensibly a burlesque, with silly, glitzy costumes, jokes, songs, dances and a very impressive hula-hoop sequence, but underneath all of this, it’s a highly intelligent Theatre of the Absurd. They are aware of this, and the show contains the telling line: ‘If you want to go deep, you must first go shallow’. Show Off is deeply self-reflective, as if the five girls are peering at themselves as they peer at themselves, like those halls of mirrors with endless reflections. The theme they are self-reflectively studying is … self-reflection (in art and social media). It was rich, wild, lushly comedic, absorbing and fascinating.

Another highlight was a new show by an old favourite – Lucy McCormick from GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, doing a premiere of a show called Calendar Girl.  When I was looking through the festival programme, I saw the show listed and read, ‘Lucy McCormick presents this late night performance as part of a biblical series in which she casts herself as Jesus Christ, in an attempt to find greater connection to her own moral conscience’. So I was already chuckling at this, days before, and also wondering how this theme would play out within Lucy’s favoured live art performance techniques of nakedness, shock, profanity and pop power ballads – and she didn’t let me down.

In fact, the show was about ascension – the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The show was sharply feminist, as much of GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’s work is, and it was also shockingly sexually graphic, but as in her previous work, there is one bomb blast of a theatrical moment when a profound concept crystallises. It was the moment where Lucy did something pornographic with her body, the woman standing next to me walked out, and I thought, ‘huh – that’s a fascinating way to ironically depict Christianity’s relationship to, and devaluing  of, older goddess-based religions’. It was a hilarious, shocking and profound show, which is what I have come to expect from Lucy McCormick.

As I look back, I realise how confident I was at the start that Watch Out would be excellent, and I was right. You know how sometimes you have friends who are a sure thing? How there are these solid, encircling parameters that deliver awesome results every time you see them? Like, every time, the conversation is a delicious mixture of funny and deep. Every time you feel relaxed, warmed and nourished. Every time you lose track of time because you’ve entered some charmed space together. I feel this way about the Cambridge Junction’s programming of contemporary performance under Artistic Director Daniel Brine and Arts Producer Daniel Pitt, who was the lead curator for Watch Out. Although the encircling parameters are slightly spikier, and they have a different purpose: to challenge me, shake some of the broken ideas out of me, reflect me, light me up and give me something new to think about.  In The After dimension, I walked out grateful, light-hearted and soaked in new ideas.

*Originally published in Exeunt Magazine

Gandini Juggling Rosalind Post

Guest Reviewer-Poet Rosalind Bouverie on Gandini Juggling’s ’4×4′ at Cambridge Junction

20 May 2015. The dancers dart and glide between the patterns of falling and rising juggling clubs, gently varying their steady geometry.  These airy diamonds hold the dance momentarily in a live force field. Then there is flow and escape. The violins, viola, cello, and double bass make a harmonious landscape of sound to move in; faces and bodies glow with energy and delight. And we hear the voices of the players; rhythmic speech matching their careful steps and balletic moves, catching and releasing. Sometimes there is an intense and emotional pairing. Then the group joins in and a wider set of links and bonds unfurl in limbs and throws and colours. Juggling hoops turn into wings, turn into halos, turn into dresses of splendour. Loose and endless falling and rising of white circles up there in the dark steady the mind, while below the human arrangements endlessly revolve and evolve. There is love and knowledge of the spaces between each person, other people. We see just how close you can get and still make a beautiful pattern. Then it shifts and breaks into something new. It makes you wonder how this moving marvel is made.

Kim noble

Guest Reviewer-Poet Rosalind Bouverie on Kim Noble’s ‘You Are Not Alone’ at Cambridge Junction

7 May 2015.  Sombre and tender he recounts a tale of woes to a handpicked listener but the story fans outward to us who sit in the dark then in the light. The straggling text of online chats are magnified in their littleness as we watch it all scroll down.  On stage there are wigs and masks and shoes and pants. They conjure the elusive loved ones. Body parts are fixed and changed and tried; it takes guts to show us how soft it is, how hard it is. His travails cut across the lines of the world. It’s shameful, honest!

Kim Noble drills through walls, he changes his shape, voice, hair, clothes. He goes through bins and shows us shit and rubbish. He sends every emoticon. His yearning is particular and a blur. His home technologies call up humans. He films us awake, he films us asleep, he films the guy across his road.  He asks Ian to do up his bra, he asks us to listen, he asks us to Nandos, he asks the computer screen, he joins us at work, he gives us awards, he asks us on dates, he asks. He gathers people to dance with each other on stage at comedy’s end.

Then Kim Noble mounts a white horse, like Don Quixote or the saddest rider of the apocalypse, and goes off stage. A camera follows him.  We see him slowly ride away from the Junction. Someone walks alongside him. It is hard to clap because the act has strayed off stage, and whether it was an act feels doubtful. He journeys through the carpark. It’s the end of a storm torn western, the reconciled end of a riven and sorrow filled fable. There’s a man in sad drag on a nag going to Nandos. People are nearby.


Around the World in 80 Days…A Glowing Review

I went to see the Cambridge Junction’s Christmas show Around the World in 80 Days on Thursday night, and my heart is still warm and glowing from it, as if there is a nonchalant heap of red and gold coal behind an iron grate on the front of my chest.   I had my first mulled wine of the Christmas season just before the show, and the first vibrant taste made me reflect that every year I cycle through forgetting and remembrance of the ornaments of the Christmas season.  This diminishing glassful was the beginning of the remembering of the forgotten loveliness of mulling.  Another forgotten loveliness, the story of Around the World in 80 Days, was also languishing, very, very dusty, in the far reaches of my memory, and it was brilliantly brought to life in this production by the award-winning company New International Encounter, with real Christmas charm, artistry, wonderful acting and a sumptuous revelling in the magic tricks of the theatre.

As I took my seat the house lights were still up, and the Victorian-costumed actors were gathered casually around an upright piano on stage, listening, as one of them played a sweet, simple, nostalgic tune.  This excellent show would unfold many delights, but I particularly enjoyed this company’s handling of the fourth wall, that funny, strange, ethereal barrier between the show itself (the actors, stage and backstage) and the audience.  This production’s fourth wall felt gentle, dismantled even, the cast aware of how the open space between us, if delicately handled, would charm us and absorb us into the story.

The story is about Phileas Fogg, an extraordinarily precise and punctual gentleman from London, who makes a bet with the other gentlemen at his club that he can travel around the world in 80 days (arriving just before Christmas).  But this jaunt, accompanied by his faithful French manservant Passepartout, coincides with a robbery of the Bank of England, and looks suspiciously like a-run-for-it to the villain of the piece, the ‘extremely unpleasant’ Inspector Fix, who pursues Fogg all the way around the world.  I read Around the World in 80 Days when I was about 11, so it was fascinating to see the story again through grown-up eyes.  The story really belongs to its time: written by Jules Verne, the visionary science fiction writer of the Victorian age, it is about a moment when the world changed, a great hinge point in history when the scientific advances of the Enlightenment enabled people to move much more quickly around the Earth, powered by steam engines, on trains and ships, and, famously for this story, the hot air balloon.  The show captures this sense of wonder for the scientific age, and for me, the wonder felt like a Victorian echo of our current technological leap forward.  The production is a lush celebration of the aesthetic world of Victorian England: the stage was littered with potted palms, silk lampshades with bobble tassels, Chesterfield chairs, top hats, an upright piano on wheels.  And the theme of time is enjoyably explored, through Phileas Fogg’s obsession with precision, the repetition of train and boat times, time’s collision with the chaos of adventures (a railway that runs out of track in the Indian jungle, a snowstorm on the American prairie).

One of the principle enjoyments of watching this production was seeing how the illusions of theatre were used to take us around the world: from Fogg’s gentlemen’s club in London, with its top-hatted and cigar-puffing men; to Egypt, with fez hats and dripping sweat; the Indian jungle, featuring fronds and an elephant…(yes, you heard me right, an ELEPHANT), Hong Kong, with pentatonic scales and lanterns on long bamboo poles, and on…the whole way around the world.  An interesting part of this production’s deliciously permeable fourth wall was the backstage area, which was open for all our eyes to see, with props and instruments casually scattered everywhere, and trunks open and spilling costumes out.   And out of this jumble of stuff, the company conjured scene after scene like a running magic show.  When I came back from intermission, full of chocolate ice cream, one of the actors was abroad in the audience, doing rope tricks for the children.  At one point he said, ‘you have to believe in magic for it to work’, and this struck me as symbolic of the show, and of theatre in general.  And my heart skipped happily, and I couldn’t help smiling, because I still believe in magic, and in the theatre.

It’s also a story celebrating the values of Victorian England and the British Empire.  Erm…I can’t write a post-colonial review in a post-colonial world without discreetly murmuring ‘ahem’ over the idea of ‘celebrating’ the British Empire…but [Gallic shrug], it’s a Christmas show.  It’s for fun, isn’t it?  This made me think about the larger context of theatre, of what and who it is for, and on reflection, I decided that this show was just for creating warmth and a sense of fantasy, to transport a theatre full of children around the world in 80 days and the adults with them back into a childlike appreciation of A Good Story, Well Told.  And Jules Verne was writing from within his paradigm, his time.  So there was an interesting element of temporality surrounding the story, the staging.  And it made me consider that there are still unjust paradigms at play in our world, in our time, and society only deconstructs them in a very slow process of awakening.  After this philosophical reconciliation of the issue, I relaxed about it, and then my eyes became sweet and misty at the thought of good, old England: its silliness, gentleness, the poignance of emotion felt but contained, its obsession with tea.  These were all qualities embodied by Phileas Fogg, who is played ably and with a heart-warming vulnerability subtly glowing through a very English punctiliousness by Martin Bonger.   Once Jose, my Spanish housemate who is also living permanently in the UK, said after a trip to Seville, ‘It’s a relief to be back.  I come from such a savage culture’.  [And then he sipped his tea, daintily.]  And I feel the same, as an American living permanently abroad in England.  It was a relief to come to England and find so much gentleness and peace everywhere. Of course it is not perfect – what society is?  But it has these qualities, these very endearing English qualities. A funny refrain chiming throughout the show is Phileas importuning the passionate, French Passepartout, ‘Passepartout, please control your emotions!’

Ah…and now we come to Passepartout (‘It ees pronounced with a silentt ‘T’!!’).  The friendship between Passepartout and Fogg is the emotional centre of the story, the warm hearth of the whole production.  Although the various elements of the show were all extremely strong and fine, the performance of Passepartout by the immensely talented Stefanie Mueller (playing across gender, with a delicious French accent) was the standout highlight of the show for me.  The French qualities of pragmatism joined to lyrical emotionality that she brought to the part were a beautiful counterpoint to the Englishness of Fogg.  One of the only elements of the show that could be improved was the depiction of Fogg’s growing affection and returned loyalty to Passepartout, but I got the feeling this is one of the (very few) nuances that were a bit blunt on opening night, but which will mature as the show goes through its long holiday run.  I’m going to see the show again next week, because I feel pulled back, irresistibly, to see Stefanie as Passepartout, and I want to take my friends to see it.  Also, the Elephant – I want to see the Elephant again.  And have more mulled wine and chocolate ice cream.  And see more magic tricks.  And have the heap of warm coals presently, metaphorically, serving as my heart gently stirred, the gold glowing, the ash drifting, the warmth catching.


From the New International Encounter Website:

Featuring a cast of six, the show will be playing from 8 December – 4 January 2015 in Cambridge with further touring planned in 2015. Director: Alex Byrne Set & Costume Design: Stefanie Mueller Lighting Designer: Christopher Nairne Musical Director: Carly Davis Cast: Martin Bonger, Carly Davis, Kieran Edwards, Ben Frimston, Keshini Misha, Stefanie Mueller Production Manager: Tom Cotterill


Don quijote 2

Some Thoughts About Dreams via an Avant-Garde Remix of Don Quijote

I went to see Don Quijote, a show by Emma Frankland and Keir Cooper, in association with Ultimo Comboio, which came to the Cambridge Junction on Wednesday 24 September.  I have a dear Spanish friend, José, so I invited him to come with me.  As we entered J3, the Junction’s smaller studio theatre, we were seated like a kindergarten class on the floor in the middle of the space; and then it transpired that the show would spin around us like a new galaxy in mixed theatrical materials, jumping from wall to wall, then into our midst – and we, the audience, were in a state of continuing scatter and scramble, re-mixed like Cervantes’ four hundred-year-old work.

It was a show where book love dripped through the theatre: serif’d words about the Spanish knight on cream backgrounds glowed, large, on the walls around us, and a live circular saw sheared through the binding of a fat edition so fluttering pages could be thrown joyously through the air at us.  Don Quixote was a she in this imagining, and she chose José, my José, to be her Sancho Panza and took him away on an adventure outside the theatre, only returning him at the very end of the show.

His departure left a strange gap by my side, and I kept wondering where he was and what was happening to him, while the performance stirred me in increasingly profound ways.  I’m a lover of the tensile strength of a story, and I watch the way stories travel across time and culture, how they hide, survive, and kaleidoscope into variances; and beholding this story was like looking at one of the grandfather trees in the forest, mighty and still alive.  The production used a pleasingly chaotic mix of theatrical materials, including projected shadow animation that travelled the walls, vignette, absurdity, storytelling, collage, flamenco and rock ‘n roll to explore the ancient story, all the while showing a fierce and reverent respect for the original.

The show played with the idea of whether a story is true by telling us a story that confidently announced its truth (like Cervantes’ novel) — and then, when a live skyped teleconference revealed that the storyteller was telling us a fiction, the layering of story/truth was set spinning in the same way as the original…thereby catching the audience in the question mark, where we hung, our senses aroused more sharply for a philosophical hunt: asking What is Really True…about Anything?

And then, delectably, satisfyingly, the show traced the aspect of human nature that the original story curves lovingly around, by telling us a fast-paced stream of true stories about quixotic real-life people:  Steven Gough, the Naked Rambler, who has been told by the highest court in the land that it is not his right to ramble naked; Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot, who said upon being released from prison, ‘If I had the right to refuse freedom, I would’, because she knew the idea – the dream – behind her protest lived stronger behind bars.  These are the ones who dream big and bear accusations of madness, and keep dreaming, and give everything for their dream.

I wished so deeply that José could be with me, because there was a particular, increasing-in-intensity, flavour of Spanish political passion infused into the show that I knew he would love with his part-political activist, part artist, and fully passionate heart…and also because he rocks pretty hard and loves music, and The Matador, played by Emma Frankland, our guide through the deeply affecting and intelligent chaos of the show – after stoking the dreams burning in our hearts via the true stories of the Quixotes who live among us, for real – busted out an electric guitar and set them fully alight via REALLY LOUD AND AWESOME GUITAR ROCK N’ ROLL.

Ah.  Art.  This is why I love it so much.  Have you ever had a dream?  How much daylight do you give your dream?  How much oxygen?  How much fire?  Is it buried?  How deep?  The show was brilliant, beautiful, complex, mysterious.  There were many layers, angles and nuances.  I have only explored a small corner of the show’s significance and wonder.  But these were the questions, the highly important questions, the show unearthed…and they aren’t just personal questions.  They are questions to be asked about our collective dreams, for things like truth and freedom.

At the end of the show, Don Quijote came back with Sancho, played by José Delgado of Seville (now resident in Cambridge), and we learned they had been on a quest.  José had been having a singular theatrical experience, one that delved deeply into his individual Quixote nature, and he was aglow with the magic of it.  So aglow, I ceased regretting he hadn’t had the same experience as me, and simply enjoyed the light emitting from him.  I realised he had just had a different shake of the kaleidoscope.


Cambridge Junction

Aw, Shucks. The Cambridge Junction Makes Me Their Blogger in Residence…Some Opening Remarks About Criticism

The Cambridge Junction – our city’s most diverse and serious home for the arts, which sits out on the skirt of the city centre by the train station, where its wooden planking, steel beams and great big concrete bricks inhale and exhale the arts and audiences – I am very honoured to say, has made me their Blogger in Residence for the 2014-15 arts programme.  My friends there asked me to write this introductory post about the arts, culture and criticism for their new blog, and, well…hmm…’critic’ is a funny word, isn’t it?

To be honest, I don’t feel like ‘A Critic’….although what ‘A Critic’ is exists differently, separately, in your mind and my mind and everybody else’s mind and can’t be reliably nailed down as a concept.  It is a word that can crack and break apart under the spinning force of changing meaning, but at this point in history it is heavily associated with negative appraisal, and with certain rhetorical traditions in journalism and academia, and it’s a word that just doesn’t fit me.  I dislike the condescending archness of much traditional journalistic criticism. I think this has slid seductively into journalistic arts writing because it is sensationalist, and sells.  The reason why it frustrates me is that the bitchy rhetorical register often adopted as a common tone warps the critical lens.  Academic criticism is generally more beautiful and pure in spirit, but it is often inaccessibly, pointlessly complex.  But it’s interesting to think that journalistic and academic criticism are housed things - within traditions, editorial structures, expectations.   But after several hundred years of criticism being contained and shaped in these traditional publishing edifices, there is a new and peculiar publishing space: the internet.

When I started writing about the arts, I stood at a crossroads and looked down the two paths: traditional arts journalism or blogging.  The decision took less than a second, because my heart was clamouring for complete creative freedom.  I remember thinking, ‘If I have my own website, I could write a poem as a response! A 7,000-word essay! A transcribed dialogue! A poetic version of a transcribed dialogue!’  And then I discovered that this is a trend, a brilliant trend, where writers, enabled by the abundant freedom of the web, are breaking free of traditional publishing pathways, and expectations, and creating a wildly diverse and creative new type of arts response, one which is particularly championed by the Junction, who started an arts writing group last year, to foster exactly this sort of new response to the arts in Cambridge.

But I do share the original impulse behind journalistic or academic criticism, which is to attempt to provide a clear, meaningful explanation for why a piece of art is powerful, beautiful or valuable, or why one isn’t.  But I guess my way of doing that exists in a different paradigm that, to me, feels more like, well, love than criticism.  I have a heart-pounding, dewy-eyed, deep, deep love for all art, for the mere fact of its existence.  I have always been aware that it is real magic that we live amongst.

An old English teacher from high school, the Michigan poet Michael Delp, used to ask our class over and over again, ‘What is it about Huckleberry Finn that makes you want to build a raft and sail down a river?’  He never answered this question for us, because how could he?  But because of that, I have always asked the question of art: ‘how deeply have you moved me?’ and ‘will I change the way I see and live because of you?’

But along with my love for creativity is a responsible-feeling desire to see art clearly and truthfully, asking each work ‘what do you intend?, and ‘what is your potential?’ and crucially, ‘where are you are in the rough and ragged journey of realising that potential?’  Because a fully-realised artistic idea is the most powerful, the most moving.

A friend who recently read some of the posts on my blog asked me, ‘Do you ever dislike anything you see?’, because all of the posts are positive responses.  I thought about this for several days, and then My Appraisal Apparatus appeared in my imagination as a clanking wooden and metal contraption inside me capable of measuring Value, Power, and Beauty in Art.  Once it took shape, I contemplated it: structurally it is built out of thousands of hours of reading, listening, and watching.  There are highly polished sections, embellished with ideas from my degrees in the humanities (literature, music and theatre), and a couple of rougher areas I have built on my own with hours but no schooling (film, visual art and popular music).  What powers the whole thing it is a heart full of love for the arts.  And I saw that the amount of hours I’ve spent contemplating art have given me a deep sensitivity to how skill, technique, and craft allow an artistic idea either to flourish or falter, and that this is a valuable aspect that helps me to see a work of art clearly.

Because, of course, I do see things I feel are underdeveloped or unskilled – and some of them are at the Junction, which on the whole programmes brilliant work from the finest range of the cutting edge in the country, but inevitably very occasionally doesn’t, because the cutting edge is a tricksy place.  But alongside the axis of idea-realisation-or-not-via-craft, I realised that I have another axis, which is about resonance, and I realised that I only enjoy writing about shows that resonate with me.  This resonance is mysterious…as mysterious as art, and as mysterious as me.   In general, I tend to resonate with art that is more fully realised, but sometimes I resonate with a flawed beauty, whose potential shines through an underdeveloped technique.

And now we have wandered into The Big Question Mark of aesthetics: where does individual resonance overlap with power and value, and where do we draw the lines?  I don’t know…who does?  But I like hanging out on this Question Mark…there is an inviting, cradling curve to it, and some tilts, shadowed nuances and sharp edges, and a wondrous dot that I could look at for hours…and I really like the other people who come here.


‘The Hand That Takes’ by C J Mahony and Georgie Grace, A Response

Following my encounter with Beckett last week at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and the ensuing roaring hunger of my being for more like it (more deep, dark, delicious artistic abstraction), the Cambridge theatre world gave me The Hand That Takes by artists CJ Mahony and Georgie Grace at the Cambridge Junction on Wednesday night.

The Hand That Takes is a spiky title that reflects the fiery, crackling political theme of the show, ‘the sleight-of-hand trick that transformed bank debt into our collective debt and ushered in austerity measures, cuts and privatisation’.  The show is described as ‘an immersive promenade performance using live voice, recorded sound and darkness…’.

I wondered about the term ‘promenade performance’: this meant that I would walk into the black cube of the Junction’s studio theatre, J3, and be plunged into complete darkness, that I would need to put one arm up defensively as if it were holding a shield, and use the other hand to feel, that my feet would step forward tentatively and fearfully, at first.   What my hands felt on either side of me were the smooth, wooden walls of a maze.  At regular intervals, there were interruptions in the walls – gaps – which were puzzling, and after the first two minutes or so, they began to glow red.  It was too dark to see the identities of the other audience members – we were all just dark figures moving slowly around – but when the red began to glow through the gaps, we all drifted towards the meagre light.

What we saw were enclosures that each held a huge speaker emitting the cavernous, thunderous bass-filled soundscape that filled our ears and which sent reverberations through the wood walls we were holding onto as we walked slowly around.  The red glow came from messages running across stock ticker machines next to the speakers…the market needs to believe…sources are knowledgeable…the market is telling us we got it right…futures are up this morning…this government is on your side… The darkness, deep bass drone and hypnotic and coded messages were heavily evocative of the subterranean dread that I can feel running through our society around the issues of how we are governed and what politicians are doing with our money.  There was a sense of barely-suppressed, angry glee in the deployment of artistic effects that symbolise, frankly, evil: glowing red lights, electric chords signifying ‘dread’, loss of identity and power in darkness, a maze.

And then nature, beauty and truth cut through dread and darkness, and the dimensions of the piece broke out of the surface themes of ‘debt’ and ‘politics’ into the philosophic realms where we contemplate our humanity: the singing started.  A trio of male voices, I think two tenors and a bass, suddenly rang out loudly in lush harmonies, forming an exhilarating contrast to the electronic soundscape and flashing machine messages.  It reminded me of middle-period Richard Strauss choral music: it contained the strange aches of twentieth century atonality mixed with reassuring returns to harmonies in deep agreement.  It was beautifully composed (by Cheryl Francis-Hoad), and beautifully, powerfully sung (by Sheridan Edward, Aris Nadirian and Jon Stainsby), and I was transfixed by it.  It was hard to tell in the dark where the singers were, and I assumed they were ‘off-stage’, i.e off this curious, interactive, maze-stage – until during one of the breaks in the singing, a figure came to stand at one of the glowing red gaps in the maze walls near to me and after a moment started singing – and then I realised the singers were walking around immersed in the audience.  The text for the songs was the same messages that were running across the stock ticker machines.  The moment where this piece deeply captured me came while watching the singer beside me as he sang the words, ‘Growth without end…without purpose…this government is on your side…’   It reminded me of the doxology we sang every Sunday in my childhood church back in Michigan: ’World without end…a-men…a-men’, and this resonance made me shiver, as I thought of the alignment between the pillars of our establishment – religion, banks, politicians, media – and their practice of co-opting language to hide, code, and euphemise behaviours that are essentially base and rotten.  This was a beautiful moment where the slippery, silvery nuances of the piece’s themes came together in a little artistic vortex: //fear-debt-darkness//; //beauty-truth-Nature-humanity-(and the poignance of their lack) symbolised by the human voice (enacted by a voice achieving its fullest potential…a master tenor singing two feet away, really going for it, which resonated me head-to-toe, body, mind and soul)//; //the fullness and integrity of meaning in words (and the poignance of their lack)//.

At this point a memory rose up of Robert Wilson’s Walking, a large-scale, immersive, participatory modern theatre piece which was staged on the Norfolk coast in August 2012.  I worked as a volunteer on the production, and while I was there I met the wonderful Boukje Schweigman, Dutch theatre-maker and Wilson’s artistic collaborator.  She gave a talk where she used the phrase, ‘artistic language’ to describe the modes – the facets or tools – of expression that are unique to every individual artist.  The Hand That Takes was my first encounter with the art of CJ Mahony and Georgie Grace, and when the singing started, I felt then that I heard and understood their ‘language’: it was heavily political in theme and enacted within a visual art installation framework, with embellishments that crossed the line over into performance.  It was large, three-dimensional and sensorally immersive.  It wanted to cradle the audience in its largeness and largesse.  It was compelling and beautiful, and the counterpoint of the classical singing against the darkness and technologized sound felt symbolic of both a generalised feeling of hopelessness about the inability of our raised voices to fight the dark forces in our government and the immutability and irrepressibility of truth, beauty and humanity.

In other ways, The Hand That Takes had resonances with Wilson’s work: there was a measured slowness of staging that encouraged a gentle participation of imagination and senses with the piece, which allowed a gradual unfolding of the themes.  It was participatory, with large-scale, strange constructions inviting contemplation.  And most importantly, there was an exciting fertility rising out of its use of abstraction.  When the singing started, and this other, more philosophic dimension in the piece opened, a rush of ideas flooded my mind: how the voice is a symbol for our personal contribution to society, to self-governance, to protest.  The beauty of the singing evoked the idea of fineness in human nature, but at the same time, it also asked, ‘what singing or speaking is questionable…is a lie hidden in silky words?’, ‘ What does the government and media sing to us?’  The programme for the show mentions the story of the Minotaur – a Greek myth in which, on the advice of the Delphic oracle, the children of Athens are sacrificed to pay a debt they didn’t create.  This allusion was another fascinating dimension in the show because Athens was the birthplace of Western democracy.  And the idea of the ‘oracle’ suggested the mysterious nature of the market and the significance it casts over our lives, our society, our humanity – as well as questioning the motives of the modern ‘oracles’ who claim the role of interpreters of the mysteries of the market.  It was interesting that the show also occupied this ancient/modern axis.

As I’m sure you can tell, I deeply enjoyed this experience.  It sent a controlled current of anger through me that reactivated my awareness of my rights and power as a citizen of a democracy, and that felt really good.  And it was another validation of my deeply-held belief that the arts are powerful and important to our humanity.  As Liv Ullmann was quoted as saying recently in The Guardian (12/9/14), ‘We still think we are the audience to everything; we don’t understand we are not witnesses, we are participants.  You cannot save the world, I cannot…but if we do allow beauty, if we don’t kill movies and concerts and ballets and books, we still have a chance.’  The arts are powerful because they are a choir for unique raised voices countering – questioning – the way our society works, the conduct of the government.  I could see that The Hand That Takes was still rough around the edges, that it was a work in progress – and, in fact, this was its first iteration in preparation for a fuller staging later this year – but it was already coherent, powerful and fascinating, both artistically and politically, and I look forward to seeing the next round of its evolution and refinement.