A response to Andante by Igor and Moreno, as watched on Tuesday 14th November at Cambridge Junction. 

Andante: ‘walking speed, moderately slow’.

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The room smells sweet as we take our seats.

From behind a curved backdrop, a performer creeps out towards the safety of the white dance floor. With each slow, light step his trainers trigger sparks and cracks from the sea of ‘snaps’ across the stage floor. As the others emerge, a chorus of cap-gun bangs explodes. Moving delicately, they’re all desperate to be quiet, but it’s aggressively impossible.

Four performers - two male (Moreno Solinas and Igor Urzelai), two female (Giorgia Nardin and Eleanor Sikorski) - all with uniform turquoise lightweight ‘activewear’ hoodies, and legs popping out beneath them. It is only when the lights change that we realise they are entirely naked beneath.

First walking, the group pace and circle until they reach a pack-rhythm. Like with the explosions, the dance is making the stomping soundtrack that they move to. Rather than feeling deadpan or droll, the performers’ lack of expression allows us to experience them as one, to focus on the routine, to engage with the rhythms their feet make and the shapes of their patterns.

Abruptly, the performers clear the stage and we are left in darkness. Returning silently, a huge cloth bag is slowly filled with smoke, taking several minutes the tension grows. The release is beautiful, thrust upwards in a crisp white cloud which immediately spreads. It rushes towards us in the audience; we cough as Alessandro Gualtieri’s fragrance hits the back of our throats. Alberto Ruiz Soler’s thumping industrial noise kicks in - at times the bass is overwhelming, guttural and visceral. The storm is physical.

I can’t place it. Something about the scent and the low-level bass unsettles me throughout. It’s a choreography of scenography - smoke, lights, sound, smell – perhaps more than the physical movement itself. Clearly inspired by walking, the dance language is simple, universal perhaps, but still rigorously precise.

Tricks of perception define the experience in the smoke. Seth Rook Williams’ lights dance from above, creating shadow and silhouettes as the haze and performers swirl. Vagueness follows definition follows uncertainty. Escape follows futility. Visibility falls but routine remains: rhythmic footsteps against industrial noise. Who is where? Are we lost? The performers spiral in increasingly fragmented unison as the smoke thickens, deepens, darkens, lightens, swallows them up. They find each-other, unite, and slip away on repeat. A hip folk dance at the end of the world - just keep dancing while the apocalypse engulfs us. We’re never sure when or how the performers leave – falling out of view, eaten, lost, given up, given in. Humans are but powerless to these forces. Sat quietly in the white, I feel somewhere between relieved, relaxed and deeply, ominously unsettled.

The storm calms, having claimed its victims. Something rabid, sweaty, excremental, rotten – decomposing?

Without opportunity for curtain call or clapping, undistracted audience members remain transfixed in the space long after.

My memory of the detail of the show seems so hazy, like the combination of comfortable repetition and literal haze have fogged my brain. Igor and Moreno are experience-makers: they’ve created an opportunity for the audience to slow down, to be lulled, not just to watch but to become part of the event.

Disclosure: I was a co-commissioning partner for Andante (and previous work) in my former role as Arts Producer at Cambridge Junction. I have been paid a fee by Igor and Morenoto write a response to the show.

Springback Academy @ Aerowaves' Spring Forward festival

I took part Springback Academy @ Aerowaves' Spring Forward festival, Aarhus, Denmark. watching 20 performances over 3 days. I wrote 5 short reviews which are collected here, followed by a longer reflective feature which I republish here. I was mentored and edited by Roslyn Sulcas (New York Times) 

Minority identities and the politics of turning one’s back

‘Reck’, by UK choreographer Botis Seva, with his company Far From The Norm, is billed in the brief Spring Forward listings as a “riotous exploration of dorsal body language”. This is not what it is. A tribe of oiled, sweaty, muscular people crouch and crawl - with their backs to the audience and their faces mostly obscured – they pop, flex and convulse their extraordinary dorsal muscles. It’s physically impressive and almost beautiful in the mysterious spot lighting, but these are black people performing primitive and primate movements to a soundtrack of ominous jungle sounds, tribal beats, and later hip-hop. These are images evoking a terrible colonial past: stereotypes that should never have existed, being re-enacted by London-based artists for our post-colonial gaze. Are we, an audience of predominantly white, internationally mobile, mostly publicly funded, hyper-culturally aware arts professionals, working in the context of a troubled Europe, supposed to be most interested in the choreographic form of their dorsal muscles over the racial politics? Worryingly, the festival programme would suggest so.  

At the end of the piece, the performers eventually stand and face out to the audience: the only time that we get to see them as people, with faces and identities, before a blackout and they exit. Empty spotlights remain on stage while lights come up on the audience to a hip-hop track played in full. It invites us as watchers to turn our gaze upon ourselves and consider the imagery we have processed and the assumptions we have made about it. I don’t want to turn my back. ‘Reck’ provoked strong reactions at the festival because of the way that the images are presented with limited comment: the onslaught of archaic, problematic imagery is never explicitly subverted. We, perhaps, needed more personal, facial connection to feel that the performers were in control of how it was presented and received.

When watching twenty performances in less than three days, patterns emerge and the Spring Forward showcase did feature an uncommon number of dancers’ backs. In both ‘Bolero’ by Jesus Rubio Gamo and ‘Alien Express’ by Žigan Krajnčan & Gašper Kunšek, their turned-away choreography is enhanced by the honesty of their facial expressions: exhaustion and warmth, respectively. However, it’s in the work of the artists exploring minority identities that hiding and then indeed revealing their faces becomes most pertinent.

Without a performers’ face, we watch their body dancing in a different way: with a key piece of their identity removed, as a physical form in itself – there’s a risk of even being examined as a specimen. Allessandro Schiattarella, who made ‘Altrove’, has Hirayama disease, a neuromuscular disability that particularly affects his hands and his arms and back are visibly emaciated. The piece opens with Schiattarella skulking across the wall like an insect before exploring the extremes of his joints and muscular flexibility: there’s personality but it’s from his body language and we are left to consider the defining impact of Schiattarella’s disability on his entire identity as a dancer and as a person.

Conversely, in ‘Displacement’ by Mithkal Alzghair we always see the performers’ faces and topless torsos. Rigid, with linked arms, three men stomp and shuffle: a folk dance rather than a technically accomplished work. We watch and are watched as the fury and pain of these Syrian men’s exile from their homeland is paced out in circles. Their pained but neutral faces tell their story and it is harder to ignore than if we had mostly seen their backs.

The final image of ‘Woman’, directed by Andreas Constantinou and performed and by trans performer Daniel Mariblanca, is also testament to the power that direct facial and eye contact can have. Lit only chest-upwards, Mariblanca stands back to the audience but head floating in the darkness, turning around to stare directly at us. Over the course of ten minutes they turn their chest and head from side to side, faster and faster, fixing their glare on the audience each time, with increasing fervour as the music builds to an epic crescendo. With a female-sexed body in darkness, how do we see Daniel? It’s an intense, direct and interrogatory sequence that grips the audience.

As much as a back and a body can move and communicate, there is more agency in a face: more control over how the audience perceives it, and we are less able to watch passively but instead forced to engage with the subject, the feelings, the emotions, the identity of that person. For artists presenting imagery that is representing minority or oppressed bodies, it’s key that the audience perceives the work how it is intended, and ideally feels a personal connection. With a face we understand, and we’re less able to leave the theatre and forget.

How to… create theatre using circus skills

Written for The Stage for their surely reductive How To... series, appearing here. Frustratingly credited to John Byrne but actually I wrote the entire thing and it was barely even edited!

1. Go beyond acts and routines

Two hundred and forty-nine years ago, Philip Astley put a series of performers’ cabaret acts and daring feats in a round building in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Then in the 20th century, a movement we call ‘contemporary circus’ began, when artists realised there was more that they could do with those extraordinary physical skills than creating six-minute acts introduced by a ringmaster. Imagine what you could create by combining the physicality and skill of circus with the potential of theatre and dance…

2. Remember, the body and movement are political

The presentation of human bodies in performance is a political act, and if we forget that then we are also being political through our ignorance. When you frame a body on a stage, you’re shining a light on how it looks, what it’s doing and everything that means, and reflecting on personal identities and society. Circus can be stronger, riskier, sexier and more impressive than other art forms, so therefore it can also be more ‘problematic’ when it reflects outdated stereotypes and roles. Contemporary circus that is truly contemporary understands and plays with this, remembering the importance of representation in our culture.

3. Keep the fun and keep the danger

Circus has always been an art form with wide appeal for audiences – subversive entertainment made for the masses, often made by people who have chosen alternative and itinerant lifestyles. It’s real and live – and risky. Contemporary circus is broader, but at its heart it is the same art form that thrives on danger, irreverence, fun, anarchy and excitement, alongside the emotional complexities and intent of choreography, narrative and dramaturgy. Consider and combine all these aspects for something great – or break any rules like circus should.

So what is 'contemporary circus'?

Written for Roundhouse's in-house blog and published in edited form here.

Clowns on tiny cars, jugglers throwing clubs and knives, acrobats standing on shoulders, ladies swirling between aerial silks, flying trapeze (with an intentional mistake to raise the tension in the room), a ringmaster in a red jacket and top hat, maybe even a lion tamer, all under a tented big top… Are these the kinds of things that come to mind when thinking of circus?

There are still some traditional circuses of this kind, but in the last third of the twentieth century things began to change with a movement towards ‘contemporary circus’ – steps towards expanding the definition of circus: incorporating theatre, dance, narrative, borrowing from and fusing it with other art forms, going beyond the skills and using them in new ways, frequently out of tents and into theatre buildings. It’s this hybrid art form, contemporary circus, with the huge breadth of styles that it encompasses, pushing at the boundaries of the form, that Roundhouse is proud to present and support the development of in our programme.

As part of our collective stereotype there’s a nostalgic, vintage aesthetic of weird acts and extraordinary, niche skills but contemporary circus is broader, more varied, more modern and more in line with other contemporary art forms than you might think. From its beginnings, circus has always been innovative – it was ‘invented’, after all, 249 years ago when Philip Astley put together a series of performers and horse acts in a round building in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. It has always been kept alive by itinerant artists with a tradition of subversion and counter-culture, cross-pollinating with other art forms. Contemporary circus is the logical, and exciting, current incarnation – a cutting-edge art form like any other.

So what does contemporary circus look, sound and feel like now? You might find it in a tent in a field but it’s more likely to be found in a theatre, in the streets, in a club, a warehouse – or anywhere else someone wants to put it! It’s more likely to be a full-length show than a cabaret act. It’ll use the physical skills, techniques and attitude of circus, but it might well use them in new ways. It might be more influenced by either theatre, physical theatre or contemporary dance, or live art, or digital art, or visual art. It might be risky, dangerous, weird, freaky or it can be beautiful, poetic, expressive, personal and the most interesting will always be relevant socially, culturally or politically.

And how does It’s Not Yet Midnight…, visiting Roundhouse in April, fit into the broad spectrum of contemporary circus? Compagnie XY perfectly encapsulate how the heritage of circus has been combined with artistic, theatrical and choreographic innovation to create something extraordinary. The company (there’s lots of them – 22 on stage) live communally, travelling constantly in the same tradition of touring tented companies, they train with immense dedication – they are world class in their skill level - and combine their acrobatics with dance, theatre, politics and social ideals while retaining the risk and the spectacle of circus on a grand scale.

Maybe you’d like to think of it as watching a ballet where the dancers can throw each other through the air and balance on each-others’ shoulders as gracefully as they move across the floor… or maybe it’s like a traditional circus but all the performers are doing all the acts together. Think of it as a play without words – a masterclass in body language and movement - or an Olympic acrobatic competition that will make you feel and think about the world around you rather than just their technique. However you’d like to think of it, we can guarantee you It’s Not Yet Midnight… is extraordinary, pertinent, beautiful, emotive, important entertainment and I hope you can see it.

It’s Not Yet Midnight… is playing at Roundhouse from 10th-23rd April 2017. www.roundhouse.org.uk

WATCH OUT Festival

This article was first published on Exeunt Magazine at the beginning on 18th May 2016.

Some conversations I have not yet overheard in the run up to WATCH OUT Festival:

“I came to see Kim Noble’s You’re Not Alone at the Junction last year coz they’d listed it in it in the comedy programme, and now I’m addicted to morally-dubious, kind of surreal, auto-biographical, film-mash-up confessional performance.”

“Ah… I’ve got just the thing for you mate – Tribute Acts, by TheatreState – they’re newish, they’ll really pick you up.”

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“I had one of those great roast dinner sandwiches at that weird temporary café on Bridge Street where the waitresses will shake their bum in your face without wanting any money, and now I’m addicted to finding live art where I least expect it.”

“Well my friend, Hunt and Darton are testing out their newest project – a hyper-local outdoor radio station.”

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“I came to see that weird, feisty cabaret-ish show from a company who called themselves Shit but were actually pretty good coz it was in the WOW – Women of the World Cambridge festival programme, and now I’m just DESPERATE to know their early performative ideas on Dolly Parton!!!”

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“I came to see that really imaginative version of Around The World In 80 Days two Christmasses ago and now I can’t resist knowing what how that woman who played Passpartout retraced the life of the former owner of her coat, and uses the metaphor to consider the choices we all make in life!”

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“I saw that man with the crazy hair spit words at me and then bombard me with noise at Night Watch festival, AND I JUST WANT MORE NOISE COMING AT ME FROM ALL ANGLES!”

“Thankfully you can experience Christopher Brett Bailey’s guitar music project THIS MACHINE WON’T KILL FASCISTS BUT IT MIGHT GET YOU LAID surround you in Cambridge Junction’s gig venue. It’s also in capitals – you seem to like those.”

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Did you have a theatre gateway drug? Cambridge Junction’s got a few locked away most months after our 6am raves, but for my part of the programme – the ‘Arts’ programme – though we don’t get to confiscate so much, I really hope people leave the shows we present buzzing. It’s a programme of contemporary performance: usually work which acknowledges the liveness of theatre in some way, that sometimes takes risks, that’s intending to make you think and feel and/or dazzle you at the same time, that makes you feel like the success of the show is teetering on a knife-edge, that’s showing and doing things that I’ve not seen before, that’s structuring narrative in ways that make me perplexed, that embrace confusion and abstract sense over solid understanding, that mean we have to turn our buildings round in unusual ways and turn off all the emergency exit lights, that… that… live performance that makes me, and I hope other people, buzz. And it definitely is addictive, particularly when combined with a generally bad life case of FOMO.

I’ve been at meetings and conferences where venue people have talked about how they either believe in, or completely don’t believe in the idea that audiences need to be ‘eased in’, like a gateway drug, from twee devised theatre to ‘difficult’ contemporary theatre, to live art. It could be a bit like getting into a hot bath that’s actually totally going to sort you out, but really you can just get in deep easily because you know it will be fine. I don’t think this is the only way to programme and widen what audiences are exposed to, and I think it takes a top-down, patronisingly reductive view of the people we call ‘audiences’. People can and will always choose what they want to go to, and if there is no ‘way in’ for an audience once they’ve got there, then that’s a problem with what’s been made.

At Cambridge Junction, we’ve developed audiences for the arts programme without compromising on the contemporary style of work presented – there are no ‘classics’ and very few ‘plays’ – done so by presenting work which clearly has something to say about the world around us (and flogging it as hard as we can). But there is a necessity to present work of a certain size, format, production value, duration – particularly when you’re already dealing with work that isn’t always what people expect. But as a venue that has long celebrated experimentation, innovation and emerging artists with a strong commitment to artist development, we want to be able to present work that doesn’t fit into the 7.30pm evening boxes that we call programming, as well as supporting and presenting work that might struggle alone in Cambridge.

So WATCH OUT Festival is the buzz that you might as well just head straight for, and the hot bath that you might as well jump into. It’s a programme of projects which are all relevant and connected to Cambridge and Cambridge Junction in different ways. They have been all commissioned, co-commissioned or supported by Cambridge Junction by contemporary performance makers who are Cambridge based, Eastern and South East regionally based, or come from further afield.

Looking through the day, Anna Brownsted and Stefanie Mueller live and work in Cambridge; Sylvia Rimat worked with an academic at Cambridge University while in residence at Cambridge Junction; Andy Field is working with year 5s from local primary school The Spinney to share their hopes for the future of the city; local Hunt and Darton have been a resident company since 2012 and their Café began its life in the city; TheatreState had been supported by the now defunct Escalator scheme and spent time making the show here; Jamal Harewood and Sh!t Theatre are this year’s Spring Festivals Commission with Sprint, Mayfest and Pulse; Ira Brand and Rachel Mars are working in our studio, Tim Spooner is premiering a chapter of a new longer piece and when there’s a theatremaker who makes such good noise as Christopher Brett Bailey and you have a gig venue, you’ve got to put him in it. Most have performed at Cambridge Junction before and we’re supporting the creation of new projects. There are 3 work in progresses, 7 premiers and 3 shows that have already been performed elsewhere – and all of that at a price that allows the audience to take a risk. It’ll all be new and fresh and live and risky and that’s what creates the buzz that’s addictive.

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“I just want to exorcise my feelings of envy through song and leave feeling liberated!”

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“I just crave contemplative experiences of the future with children I’ve never met before.”

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“Sometimes I just need to be alone, in the dark…”

Glastonbury, Theatre and Radical Shared Experience

This article was first published on Exeunt Magazine at the beginning of July 2016.

We are in dark times. I don’t need to list the events of the last few months around the globe and in the UK. Theatre is what I love and know, and it’s what I always hope will help change the world but like so many things that we invest ourselves in, it often lets us down.

On Friday morning I woke up, like about 180,000 others, in a muddy field after not enough sleep to find that Britain had voted to leave the European Union. I am going to make a demographic generalisation and suggest that if you are reading this you were also as shocked, upset and angry as I was. Facing three more days of Glastonbury Festival, how do you keep on partying when you realise that the opinions and values of opposing ideologies are factually becoming a majority and making irreversible, ill-informed change?

Like parts of our press, our friends and our social media sites, the Glastonbury Festival is a political bubble – overwhelmingly pro-Remain. It’s a haven for the values of freedom of expression, of creativity, of peace, of inclusion, of ethical trading, of environmental awareness, of sustainability, of doing things because they are fun and worthwhile and make people happy, of people doing things because they love and care about them, and though obviously a multi-million pound business it is still resisting the extremes of capitalism. It’s in this space that I woke up on the morning after the referendum.

Liveness and shared experience have for a long time been hugely more important factors in my interest in theatre and performance than narrative or traditional craft. I go to see a lot of both live theatre and music. I don’t go to the theatre because I want to see the best acting on stage, and I don’t go to gigs because I want to hear an album performed exactly like it is on CD. The best gigs are when the band goes all out, turns up the volume, breaks it down, ramps up the fury, puts on a show, and when the audience is part of the experience. Everyone knows that if you want to be in the action for a gig, you go front and centre for the mosh-pit or the pre-teen fangirling and there’s the self-selecting system where you choose how close you want to be to the action and how ‘into’ the gig you’re going to get that night by where you stand. Standing is active, and it’s also half way to dancing or jumping and so far from sitting, that extra knee bend from being passive and individual to being part of something with everyone else. There is nowhere to sit down at a muddy Glastonbury.

We want to express ourselves and mark ourselves out, but we want to feel together and know that we aren’t alone, to know that other people think and feel like us. It’s sometimes only when everyone else is dancing that we can dance and sometimes only when everyone else is singing that we can sing: doing it together makes us feel liberated and stronger, that we’re part of something greater than us, united, and we lose our inhibitions.

Anthropologist Victor Turner called this ‘communitas’, and I am going to quote from Wikipedia here as I am very far from being an anthropologist: an “unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal allowing them to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage. Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together.” ‘Liminality’ being the “quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals”. Theatre, music, clubbing all having ritualistic qualities.

I often feel united in an experience with an audience in the theatre, but sometimes that audience is just 50 or 200, maybe 600 people sat in the dark. Rarely in the UK do we present theatrical events that can rally enough numbers or take place in the right spaces to create the feeling of ‘communitas’ that we need at the moment to feel like we are not alone and we can make the change for a better country and world. It can only happen outdoors: public space has always been political, and now that it’s ever-increasingly becoming corporatized, it is even more so.

The infrastructure we have in this country that is making and presenting really exciting, contemporary, radical, politicised theatre and performance that I think has the power to inspire change are the smaller spaces, or perhaps a biennial festival in a larger space. It’s partly down to the economics of a ticket buying public but it responds to a culture that has prioritised a few hundred years of dull, intellectualised, conventional theatrical experiences and lost its political power and its audience numbers by doing so.

There is refuge on a dancefloor and there is anonymity in a crowd on a field, there is understanding in an audience. The atrocity in Orlando recently is made worse than simply the death toll because it took place in a safe space, the dancefloor of a club for the LGBTQ community. So many marginalised communities will tell you how dancefloors and streets are important creative and socio-cultural spaces. Partying becomes political because other artistic spaces have let us down. Unfortunately at the moment, it feels like the majority who believe in freedom, peace and a better future is newly becoming a marginalised, powerless group, but this doesn’t have to be the case.

The famous Shangri-La debauched late-night area at Glastonbury aims to “holds a mirror up to the masses, challenging people in politics and play” through a mixture of clubbing, bands, performance art, installations, visual art and simply offering unconventional experiences. It’s that combination of hedonism through art and music that at the moment feels especially pertinent to me, as our culture becomes sanitised. We’ve lost some important rare spaces that serve that grimy border: notably The Arches, Glasgow (RIP), The Shunt Lounge (RIP), The Royal Vauxhall Tavern (home to Duckie, amongst other legendary queer artists and events) is currently under threat again from developers, at Cambridge Junction (where I work) clubs have been reduced for various reasons, though it’s good to see places like The Yard Theatre starting up nights.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I want to experience theatre that you can’t walk by because the beat’s drawn you in and you want to be part of it. I want to be at theatre that attracts numbers that make the authorities scared. I want to feel that I am part of the theatre; that it’s been made for us in the audience not for the people on stage, and that it’s welcoming as well as intellectually rigorous and formally experimental. We need to make the case for the arts and these things happening makes the case for themselves.

In my memory, all the biggest performative public art events that the UK have seen have been from French companies and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they have a significantly healthier audience base, societal value for the arts and funding system. Artichoke brought Royal De Lux’s The Sultan’s Elephant to London in 2006 and La Machine’s The Spider to Liverpool in 2008; Crying Out Loud brought Le Studio de Cirque’s Place des Anges to London in 2012 as part of Piccadilly Circus Circus (I was part of the producing team) and it’s coming back in July to Hull as part of the City of Culture celebrations. Free tickets for the show in Hull first crashed the website and then when relaunched 10,000 tickets sold out in 51 minutes, showing there is real thirst for events like these. These events feel special not just because they are spectacular, but because they take place outside, claiming the streets, and fill them with people who despite their differences are feeling part of something amazing, united and freer in the process. We want and need to be there.

In times like this, despite the logistical and financial challenges, I hope we can go bigger, more public and better with our theatre and our events. I wish it wasn’t the case but in these deliberately and strategically divisive times, it feels like just being together is becoming radical.