Previously on Maddy writes about Ponyboy Curtis: there was the R&D writing, the collective writing, and the heartbroken writing (links to all in that third one). This is dedicated to Simon Bowes, who was with me both nights at the Yard when I saw FCKSYSTMS, and said afterwards on twitter that it had left him "with a Hangover to be reckoned with", but is yet to write anything more.
I sometimes get the impression that people think Chris tells me everything I need to know about his work. It's fair enough: I'm often in his rehearsal rooms, we chat now and then. But the truth is, I struggle to figure it all out as much as the next person. I haven't been behind-the-scenes with Ponyboy since the initial R&D in December 2014, so the stuff that's going on within that square of crumpled clothing is a series of riddles, enigmatic and mystifying. I have luminous moments in which an interpretation suggests itself to me, and befuddled moments when I haven't a clue.
In Chris' book A History of Airports, a collection of pre-Company texts for performance, there are two things that have long puzzled me: handprint/mouth configuration schematic (ON THE FLY), a “kind of textual archive” of a series of improvisations with Jonny Liron, and O Vienna (score for solo performance), which Chris says in his notes is “designed … to be interpreted (by a dancer, say) rather than read”. Handprint in particular is typographically exquisite; O Vienna flows like a poem; neither of them give me any indication whatsoever of how they might have looked, sounded or felt on stage. I don't know how to see them.
Watching FCKSYSTMS at the Yard, I suddenly understood those pages. Or rather, what I felt I was watching was a score activated, detonated even. I have no idea what that score would actually look like: angry scrawls in emerald ink, a collage of images and text ripped from financial pages and gay magazines, instructions on a set of postcards, Dennis Cooper's blog? It wouldn't look like this text, that's for sure.
Incidentally, I'm aware it's possible to read in the assumption that Chris tells me everything I need to know about his work the inference that I have meagre capacity to analyse it on my own. Like dedicating yourself to trying to understand the intricacies of thinking of another human being, in all their complexity and contradiction, not within the context of a romantic relationship or a therapy transaction, but as a basic function of being human, is too strange a pursuit to be believed.
And if it's a score, what if it looks like music? What if each body is an instrument, with its own timbre and tonality, and Chris is, not composing exactly, but conducting an arrangement of tone clusters and sharps?
I'm not even going to talk about the poem. I see FCKSYSTMS twice and it washes over me both times. It's the word ontological: by the third syllable I'm lost and I can't compute anything that's wrapped around it. In this room, it's the language of bodies that focuses me, not the system of communication already privileged.
Back in that original 2014 R&D, scant space was given to such banal expressions of testosterone-fuelled masculinity as grappling or wrestling. At the Yard that's prevalent; a fierce delight is taken in wrapping limbs around a torso and pulling it to the ground, in attempting to evade the touch of another, in hurling the body at walls and up scaffolding poles as though defying the building itself for its attempt to confine. When I see FCKSYSTMS on Thursday 2 June, I'm charged up and exhilarated by this; returning on Saturday 4 June it has me charged up but stressed out. There is a carelessness of bruises and the fragility of bones in the aggression directed against not just each other but themselves that alarms me. I'm not frightened by the slap of skin against concrete floor the way I would be watching an actual fight: it's the desire to care that's triggered, not fear. I want them to look after themselves. I want to look after them. But I also hear the echo in my mind of a paragraph from Men inthe Cities:
“And there's an old black-and-white photo of some kind of scuffle between these smartly dressed men and then on top of that it says: 'You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.' Rufus looks at that one for a while and he thinks about what it says and in the end he thinks: not that intricate.”
(And I miss Jonny. I'm sorry. He was only there for those first few days. But there's something about how he moves through a room, daring it, daring gravity even, to obstruct him, something about how he gives of himself without giving away, something in the cadence I've described elsewhere as charisma, whose absence I notice both nights at the Yard. It's not that the others don't have these things – Nick, boyish and sly, clambering along the edge of the balcony, reminds me of him – but those chimerical glimpses just make me more wistful for the dynamic shifts he might bring.)
Turning the volume up on aggression makes the softness speak louder, too. Those moments of caress, of kindness, of support. Of love. Not the love charged with sexual excitement – although it is that, too – but the love that's ready to tend the bruises and mop the blood and tie the bandage tight. The unconditional love of human beings that rely on each other to survive. That pulses more clearly in FCKSYSTMS than ever before.
The softness is also a softening of the boundaries of what's sexually permissible on stage. The touch reaches further, fondness becomes fondling, tongues explore nipples, hips and thighs. In that first week of June I was reading Viv Albertine's memoir Clothes Music Boys and fascinating at the contradiction between “how uptight I am about my body, bodily functions, smells and nudity” and her use of her body in public space to shock or unsettle. “Referencing sex,” she knows, “is an easy way to shock.” The bodies in Ponyboy are neither uptight (there's a glorious line in Chris' book The Forest and the Field, quoting Jonny, on whether it's “unseemly” for people to stare at his genitals: “If I'm going to go to the trouble of getting my cock out,” Jonny says, “the least you can do is look at it”) nor out to shock: they're simply taking pleasure in each other – or rather, finding pleasure in giving it.
There's another softness here: that of individual personality. There are three new Ponyboys in the room, making seven in total, and each Ponyboy does something distinct (Paul a furious, stuttering, splintered dance; Andre a tattoo of gate-marks above his pelvic bone; Craig a sequence of hand-gestures from the sidelines, instructing others to perform specific actions). And yet I'm aware of a struggle in my mind: to differentiate one from another, or to work out whether the shift in temperature in this room compared with previous performances results from the new personalities coming in or the development of Ponyboy Curtis' own personality as a hydra-headed individual becoming braver about love, touch and reach.
As I write this I'm reading Nicholas Ridout's book Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, which is brilliant but also a brain-melting macrocosm of the word ontological. In his introduction he talks about Heinrich von Kleist's Uber das Marionettentheater, and in particular extrapolates from one of its passages the argument that “erotic exploitation is an inevitable part of the theatrical experience”. Theatre is the intersection of actor's work and audience's pleasure; as such, “sexual and economic exploitation are always on the scene”.
FCKSYSTEMS makes this explicit, while also questioning the assumption in the word exploitation. Just as there are sex workers (most likely white and in a position to choose other employment should they wish; the example I have specifically in mind is Amy Cade, who talks about this in Sister, her collaboration with her sister Rosana) who embrace the work as a fulfilment of their own desire, so Ponyboys don't kiss and hold and snog and thrust and wrap lips around another's erect cock because we've paid money to watch them but because they want to and they can. I don't watch porn and never have by choice because no one has ever persuaded me that it won't be degrading or objectifying, but I watch Ponyboy Curtis and pay money to do so because this isn't porn, it's an argument about society. Even so, I feel a shiver of discomfort about how my dedication to watching this group is perceived in the wider world. It's definitely exacerbated by the fact that I'm old enough to be their collective mother.
A few days after the show finishes at the Yard, Andre tweets the following: “The pursuit of sexual pleasure as a means of relatedness rather than procreation can be understood as a profoundly anti-capitalist act”. It's in quote marks but he doesn't say where he's quoting from. I'm excited by this as a proposition, but the more I contemplate it, the more it strikes me that this is a homo-centric aggrandising of a kind of sex that I, as a cis straight woman, can never access. All sex carries the possibility or threat of procreation for me. I also wonder if the person being quoted has ever asked a woman what sex as a defined means of procreation is actually like for her: in my experience it's pretty demoralising.
In the Thursday performance, one of the new Ponyboys – I don't know his name (status as Chris Goode know-it-all instantly downgraded to AA) – crouches on the floor and wanks. I don't see how this begins, I catch him in my peripheral vision at the moment that he sticks a finger up his anus while the other hand continues to pump. I've seen this before, on another concrete floor, in Jonny's bedsit: it happened during The Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Belladonna, the final piece Chris and Jonny made together as the collaboration Action one19, I can't remember what Chris was doing but Jonny was wanking and it took him a really long time to come. My thought at the time was: my god, so much work. So much energy and effort required for a little spurt of sperm. I have the same thought watching the Ponyboy do it. The work you're putting into this. The work.
On Saturday night it doesn't happen and I wonder if I dreamed it.
I'm fascinated by how much Griffyn and Paul's bodies are like that of my son Ben's. Ben is seven, wiry, bones protruding at shoulders and knees; he eats well but that's his physique, lean and taut. When he was a smaller child it terrified me how easily I could snap him; now he's almost too heavy to carry what awes me is his capacity for strength. Apparently little boys experience a surge of testosterone at just Ben's age: it makes them suddenly interested in fighting (check), wrestling (check), waving sticks around like swords (check), all things he didn't do much before now. I look at Griffyn and Paul's bodies and wonder how I would feel if Ben walked into the room, his tiny, fragile, powerful body naked and shining alongside theirs. If I would give permission for that. What I would be giving permission to. How that permission might be condemned or understood.
There's a bit of text towards the end of FCKSYSTEMS, co-written by Simon Stephens and teenager Stan Smith and performed by Stan (fully clothed) that, if I'm honest, repulses me with its aggression. I feel like I do when Ben is shouting at me because that's how he's learned to communicate from me and his dad: the last thing I need is an entitled little white boy telling me how superior he is. I have no idea if this is actually what that text is saying because in all honesty I don't hear it, not clearly, because the tone of it is white noise.
There is a huge conversation to be had about how boys become men. I have a little boy in my house becoming a man, a little white boy becoming a man in a world in which the damage wreaked across centuries and continents by white men is being condemned with a vociferousness and ferocity unprecedented, and I need a huge conversation about how to help him be the best man he can possibly be. Deep down I know the key to it is teaching him how not to be a man but a human. To be able to do so, there are ways in which I need to dismantle myself.
Ben, my little Ben, standing in front of the audience, his naked body speaking without words. I can't even begin to imagine.
From an email I sent to Chris, 2.05am, Friday 3 June:
i try (but often fail) to be v v cautious about what i write abt my kids, but i became really preoccupied at one point this evening with the similarity between paul's and griffyn's bodies and ben's, they're all three of them such strength and wiry, and i really wondered what work like this would look like if at some point a child appeared in it naked. i think it's part of my very deep regret about missing the charmatz that you saw, which i'm so burningly curious about, and also part of [a conversation I've had with a male director about his] fundamental fucking fury at safeguarding that happens in british theatre and how it basically casts any man working with young people in a kind of suspicion of paedophilia role.
From the email Chris sent back, 2.52am:
You're so right about the way that the child's body is so spectrally present & so frustratingly absent from Ponyboy. … The first few times [Stan] was in the room with us he was barefoot, of his own volition, I guess because everybody else was so it must have looked to him like a protocol. When we moved to the Yard he started wearing shoes for the speech and I was really sorry about the change in the image but it felt completely impossible in the context even to refer to it. Everything immediately becomes fetishistic and kind of incendiary. In the final third of the Charmatz piece when the kids start taking off some of their own clothes, apparently of their own will, I remember my heart thumping through it, like surely we were going to get busted or something. It really does feel like the untouchable third rail. I keep thinking about Terry Gross's interview of Sally Mann on Fresh Air last year. Here:
I won't say any more in case you get to hear it, but it's such a sad, strange conversation, about exactly the questions you're raising, and in particular what connotations and permissions go along with motherhood.
So there's the holding and the falling and the wrestling, there's the posing and the dancing and the snogging and (maybe) the wanking, and then, oh my, there's the gif sequence. Over a club beat punctuated with a voice intoning “move” – Chris would be able to tell you what the track is, I can't (downgraded further to AA-) – a series of gifs projects across the back wall and each of the Ponyboys enacts the movement within it. Words flash up on the back wall, too: “move”, “incite”, “agitate” (might have made that last one up, it's certainly what it made me want to do). I have a flashback to CG&Co's production of Weaklings, a homage to and documentary about Dennis Cooper's blog of the same name, which also used gifs and movements based on them, in honour of the storytelling Cooper has been doing with them; and in particular I recall something Chris' regular collaborator and lighting designer for that show, Katharine Williams, told him: that Weaklings looked beautiful, because he had a grown-up, experienced, careful team who could make it so, but what the spirit of the work really needed was a bunch of kids ready to fuck everything up. Watching FCKSYSTMS, I see what she means.
But this isn't just about aesthetics, it's about community. Much more than Weaklings, Ponyboy Curtis are an embodiment of Cooper's blog, particularly in its heyday (at least, as that has been described to me by Chris). They are a group apart, vital and challenging and obsessive, a secret world at the heart of this one, in which there are no boundaries, no respect for money as a pre-requisite for action or happiness, and no limits to what sex can be or do. They are a 2am world of hallucination and extremity; Weaklings looked at that, Ponyboy live it.
8: Hail the new puritans
I was eight or nine when director Charles Atlas, choreographer Michael Clark and designer Leigh Bowery released Hail the New Puritan, and about 39 when I finally saw it. It does something that feels both more familiar now and absolutely still strange: it's neither dance nor documentary nor fashion show nor punk, but it's somehow the best of all these and more. It's sexy and silly and noisy and pretty; to adopt a quote from Matt Trueman on Ponyboy, it's alluring and wreckless, full of ego, mischief and dicks. I think I catch a glimpse of it amid the film clips and images projected on the back wall during FCKSYSTEMS, and sure enough it's listed in the works quoted or borrowed from in the credits at the end. (Brief note: Ponyboy audiences, what the fuck are you doing leaving before the credits play out? This isn't the cinema, it's not a boring list of dolly grips and stunt doubles. Chris is giving you the materials he's used to make the show: are you not interested in that?)
Like I say, I was small when it was released, so I have no idea how it landed in the art world, whether a culture already convulsed by punk would have batted even an eyelash at it. Online I've found a review, dated 27 February 1987, published in the LA Times, which hails it as “ambitious” before unleashing a barrage of criticism at the “whimsical” and “puerile” choreography, “derivative” performances, and a flamboyance that “leaves the subculture it wants to celebrate looking recklessly, suicidally self-indulgent”. Between the lines I'm reading: I want this to be more straight. Hail the New Puritan is resolutely not straight: it's queer and queers every cultural form it touches. That is its act of resistance.
I see Ponyboy Curtis in just those terms. But I wonder whether the theatrical climate in which Chris is working is, if not more restrictive than the one in which Clark operated, then more resistant back. I wonder how far he can really push things. I wonder what boundaries will neither soften nor crack.
On the Saturday night, Stan appeared on stage for his speech, pulled out an aerosol can and a lighter and lit a flame. From what Craig told me afterwards, no one knew he was going to do this, he just hinted he had “something up his sleeve”. That proved to be almost literal when he misjudged the angle and set his arm on fire. But the accident made the action perfect: not just belligerent but vulnerable and idealistic. Would any theatre give advance permission for an action like that to happen on stage? I doubt it. And I wonder how that deference to fear and safety is circumscribing imagination.