Thursday, 20 October 2016

dancing through the gloom

I'm writing this in recovery from falling off my bike, a spectacular vault across the handlebars that has left me with a split eyebrow, a swollen cheekbone, a bruised lip and grazed knee: looking, that is, how I've been feeling for weeks, beaten-up and blue. Work – commissioned, paid work – dried up some time in June, apart from a single precious long-term project (bless you, Unfolding Theatre) whose deadline isn't until February. [Correction added later: there was also this piece for the Orange Tree, a brief flashback to journalism days; and of course the week at the Edinburgh festival with The Sick of the Fringe. Apologies to both for forgetting.] And while I could have spent the beginning of the school year wisely, seizing the opportunity to stretch out as a writer, or return to abandoned pursuits, X or overhaul my web presence to accentuate my brand (puke), what I've actually done is spiral down into a salt-stained gloom. A sense of failure is dismally self-fulfilling: you think you're not good enough, so you don't even try, which proves you're not good enough, for anything. And the problem runs deeper than self-pity (in which I've been triumphant: no failure there): once again I'm suffocated by a sense of pointlessness. I've fought the urge to dump this in the bin with every word. And no, I don't know why I say any of this in public, except that other people's accounts of anxiety and self-loathing help me, often, and I saw Jamal Gerald perform FADoubleGOT this week and was touched by the invitation with which he begins: this is me telling my truth, and I hope it encourages you to tell yours.

So here is something true: magic Megan Vaughan getting a job at the Live Art Development Agency earlier this year gave me the courage, for the first time since attempting to shift how I write about theatre, to apply to take part in the Agency's DIY programme. I participated in two: the first left me a wreck; the second, unprofessional class, run by dancers Jamila Johnson-Small and Mira Kautto as their collaboration immigrants and animals, might prove the beginning of rehabilitation. Ordinarily I'd never have applied for a dance workshop – I've never been to any dance classes, and amid the panoply of failures it's a source of particular shame that every one of the dances I've choreographed for the Actionettes has been performed by the others under a kind of duress and quickly forgotten – but there was something about Jamila and Mira's invitation that told me this would be OK. “we want to share our practice which is basically fucking about for ages in a room, getting tired and calling it work. we think that dancing on a stage need not look different to dancing in a club, kitchen or bus stop”, all of which are things I do; “some dancing that is a gleeful waste of time, a resistance to capitalism and the development of cultural capital (or capital of any kind) or function or product; non-practical bodies dancing towards no particular purpose or end”, all of which I believe in profoundly.

There were five workshops and I was invited to two (not, sadly, the one that took place in the pre-Raphaelite room at Tate Britain where they danced to Kate Bush). In my first, Mira and Jamila shared the tasks and music that form the basis of their show Pony, and invited each of us to interpret them for ourselves; we ran through them once for practice, and then performed for each other in two groups, which might have been excruciating (the performance-for-critique aspect being what broke me in the other DIY), except that Mira and Jamila held the space so generously: there were no wrong answers, wrong movements, wrong versions, only ways of moving, each as radiant in possibility as the other. For the second, they invited us to dress in “formal attire, whatever that means for you”, and serenaded us with cheesy pop – the kind of songs played at a wedding or adolescent disco – with barely any instruction for how we might respond to them. That they didn't know the words a lot of the time, that their voices quavered on the high notes, that they giggled at themselves and the struggle of the song, all contributed to the atmosphere of permission. Did I pick up any new techniques or moves? No. Did I manage to slough off self-consciousness for a couple of hours? Absolutely, and that is precious – the more so because each room held a performer I look to with awe, Gillie Kleiman in the first, Laura Dannequin the second. When Gillie told me that she'd enjoyed dancing with me, I brushed it off, told her I'd just been doing nonsense; but inside I was so grateful, to her and to the opportunity, not only to think through dance but to remember that the hierarchies of art that feel so real are just another social construct designed to oppress and harm.

Here's something else true: when I watched Jerome Bel's Gala at Sadler's Wells, it felt like a continuation of unprofessional class, not just because I could imagine myself part of it but because Mira and Jamila could so easily have shaped that performance and stepped up to that stage. I arrived there a mess, limbs aching, blood seeping through the skin splints holding my eyebrow together, but I had an inkling that being there would make at least my insides better and it did. Gala is glorious. There's an acid-bath article about it on the New York site Culturebot by dancer/thinker Lily Kind that dismisses it as “cliche, gimmicky, dull, cowardly, and exploitative … presenting bodies traditionally underrepresented in dance and theater [but] presenting them as interchangeable, as check boxes for their particular brand of otherness instead of as their actual, unique, individual selves”. And there's a less furious but equally critical comment elsewhere by another American dancer, Gregory Holt, which describes it as “reactionary rather than transformative”, adding:

Bel created a sentimental mirror that affirmed our desire to be open to diversity without challenging the basis of access to the festival space, funding space, cosmopolitan art space he is working in. In this way, he narrowly exploited ‘diversity’ to cement his own cis-white-male voice without sharing in the political and artistic risks facing marginalized artists who are also trying to show their dances.

All of which I appreciate (it is, after all, Bel and not immigrants and animals behind this work), without emotionally agreeing. Such joy suffused me in the room that I spent half the show crying, helplessly, snottily, partly as a release (of the pain of the fall, of the pointlessness of being alive), but mostly at the ineffable beauty of humanity, the ways in which limbs can move, awkward yet proud. A joy so serious that the laughter in the room unsettled me, especially that directed at anyone whose gender expression wasn't binary; too often it sounded like the clanging, judgemental, ugly laughter of enforced marginalisation.

Admittedly it took me a while to warm to Gala: the opening slide show of differently shaped theatres and stages just bored me, as did the exhibition of ballet pirouettes and jetes. The switch came with the three-minute collective solo improvisation in silence; because this was the flashback to unprofessional class, and because within the muddle it was possible to see the dancers as individuals, each with their own quirks. This is what I loved about Gala: the ways in which it underlined the point that “dancing on a stage need not look different to dancing in a club, kitchen or bus stop”. In this it reminded me of another beloved work, Krissi Musiol's long-term project The Dance Collector, in which she visits public spaces – cafes, whenever I've encountered it – and chats to anyone she encounters there, asking them to give her a dance move which she can incorporate into a bigger choreography of place, to be performed in the same room a couple of hours later. Some people gift her stories of meeting their spouses in a dance hall in their youth, but far more give her the instant response, “oh no, I don't dance, I don't have anything”, and it's only through kind and patient conversation that Krissi will discover the movement they can give her, whether it's the dance of the football terraces when a goal is scored, the dance of wringing out the dishcloth when the kitchen is tidied, or the dance of reaching for an item on a high shelf in the supermarket.

I guess I trusted Gala in a way those American writers didn't; trusted that it gave its dancers the same freedoms – not just of movement but from criticism – that Jamila and Mira gave me. I trusted that the Company/Company section, in which one individual after another steps forward and leads the group in a dance of their own devising, really did feature solos of individual and idiosyncratic devising, from people who are specialists in their own way. I saw a specialist in being a little girl, tossing your long blonde hair around to Miley Cyrus; a specialist in adapting the movements of breakdancing to a body twisted by cerebral palsy; a specialist in juddering hands to the beats of techno; a specialist in – possibly my favourite – effervescent hula hooping. (That last performer, a black woman with amazing candy-pink braids, reminded me so much of Hot Brown Honey, the ways in which they are clearly virtuosic but wear that talent so lightly, at the same time scouring off cliches of beauty to present a more complicated feminine identity.) Behind each of these specialists, the rest of the group followed their leader with total commitment, no matter what flailing and floundering it produced. What Gala celebrates is unprofessionalism – or, as another writer online so insightfully put it, the true meaning of amateur, its etymology in the French and Latin for lover.

I love dancing, but I'd never call myself a dancer. I love painting but I've never let myself be a painter. I had a love-hate relationship with playing guitar that petered out and still aches with the pain of unrequitement; I love singing but rarely sing in public, only if I feel camouflaged. Introducing myself to a group of strangers recently, I noted aloud that I write, but always use the verb to describe that: not until I've published something of imaginative scope, of actual invention, of worth in the world, and ideally not as a vanity project but as sanctioned by a third party, could I call myself a writer. So much of my innate sense of failure lives in this lack of professionalism. Politically, I am part of the chorus fighting against this: the blog I kept as part of Fuel's New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project articulated a lot of that, and I read the most recent blog post on the 64 Million Artists site murmuring over and over, true, true, true. Jo Hunter (I'm assuming it's her) writes:

There is creativity happening everywhere in the UK. Yes there is inequality and poverty in this country when we use the measures of money or formal cultural provision. But there is richness too, in every place – musicians and writers and dreamers and cake bakers. So let’s start by celebrating what’s already there rather than panicking about what’s not. Let’s champion the brass bands and the grime artists and the felters and the am dram and the pumpkin carvers, alongside the professionals and the existing infrastructure.

I can cheer these things in other people. It's what I'm loving so much about the project I'm doing with Unfolding: that, too, is a celebration of unprofessionalism, of playing music “as a gleeful waste of time... towards no particular purpose or end”. I just can't find a way to celebrate or even accept them in myself. My salve this week has been to wonder if anyone can, whether the affirmation that makes it possible for others to work as artists comes not from within but without: from the partners they collaborate with, the community that surrounds them, the organisations that say yes, we want to work with you. In some ways I have those things, but four straight months of no commissioned paid work can very much make it feel otherwise. In that absence, it has been altogether too easy to turn inwards, to pummel myself from within. I've been telling myself since I was a teenager that I don't have anything perceptive to say about the human condition; two decades later that truth is so solid within me it's unbreakable. (Writing about theatre is the only way I've found to evade that, because it's the makers being perceptive, not me, but even that isn't working any more.) And as I mop up the orange gunge oozing from my knee, I wish I could as easily cure the infection in my soul.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

French connections (2): a return to the Travellings festival

Sometimes, life just throws you a gift. Sometimes that gift is a friend buying you cake and sometimes it's A PERFORMANCE FESTIVAL BUYING YOU A RETURN TICKET TO MARSEILLES FOR THE WEEKEND. No strings, no expectations. I looked really hard for the catch, double-checking the invitation email for the small print that said “oh and you have to write about us or we'll have the flight and hotel costs back”, but never found it. I don't have to be doing this. But I want to, because the Travellings festival does a lot of things I want all performance festivals to do, with heart, consideration and a genuine approach to experiment that takes failure in its stride.

This was my second year at Travellings and the two festivals were surprisingly unalike. Not in the basics: Travellings is curated by Lieux Publics, a long-standing French organisation that supports multi-disciplinary outdoor performance, and takes place within the same former industrial complex where Lieux Publics has its offices, which happens to squat across the road from a sprawling housing estate. And it coincides with an annual meeting of the In-Situ network, an EU-funded collaboration between 20+ arts festivals, each of whose artistic directors attends, bringing with them an artist or collective, someone whose work they want to share with the rest of the group. So Travellings has to perform multiple functions, creating space for the In-Situ network to conduct some business, but also creating an informal atmosphere of sharing and discussing performance, and doing this not in a closed way but opening out to a general public, not just the culture aficionados unfazed by the rickety journey from the centre of Marseilles, but also the people who live on the estate opposite, for whom performance – even outdoor performance – might be an elitist and inaccessible thing.

Where the two Travellings differed was in structure and atmosphere. Last year (which I wrote about here) there were panel discussions in the mornings, and the meetings between artists and artistic directors took place over lunch tables with a scrupulously organised seating rota, and the public programme of work was by artists unconnected to the In-Situ meeting, mostly “finished”, and stretched across two days. This year, the panel discussions were dumped and the lunches free-form, while the performance programme was condensed into a single four-hour period and entirely featured the artists engaged in the In-Situ meeting, presenting work in synopsis or various states of unreadiness, followed by a party shaped by local group Rara Woulib. Neither structure is perfect: what this year gained in informality, it lost in comprehensiveness; I had frustrations last year, I had different frustrations this year. But Lieux Publics' willingness to rethink and remodel is highly appealing.

My main problem this year was time. There were 17 works on offer, some durational, some with set start times, and lasting between 15 and 60 minutes. At the beginning of the day I was arrogantly declaring that I'd see all of them, but within a couple of hours queues were defeating me, overheated rooms repelling me, and motivation flagged. In the end I saw just over half the work, a result that made the competitive idiot in me balk.

Of what I did see, I'm going to focus on the most positive. Luke Jerram's Museum of the Moon is 100% brilliant. BRILLIANT. He has all sorts of different settings planned for it, and the one at Travellings was probably the simplest: the moon was suspended from the ceiling of a massive shed, deckchairs were arranged along one edge of the room, and in the background a soundtrack played, a tidal collage of static and recordings of the Apollo landings and classical music and more. The moon itself is just a gigantic beach ball, but over its surface is pasted, as declared on the project website, a “120dpi detailed NASA imagery of the lunar surface”. And it's illuminated all the way around: what you see on first entering the room is the far side of the moon, the bit usually hidden from earth. That's a thing of wonder in itself.

Looking at the near side, our side, I scanned the pock-marked surface for the faces so easy to project from earth, but its shadows denied anthropomorphism. Proximity afforded new ways of looking, of dreaming and reaching. I circled it, tracing patterns in its craters; lay directly below it and through the air molecules felt its weight. And then a lonely piano played and I wished there were someone I could dance with, or that the room might flood with old people, gliding the floor in a foxtrot while singing silvery tunes.

Jerram, it turns out, is the man who first started putting pianos in public places: in his version – commissioned as part of the Fierce Festival in Birmingham in 2008 – they're decorated by local community groups and bear the inscription Play Me, I'm Yours. He's based in Bristol (which means he also saw the Fake Moon that was suspended over College Green in 2013 as part of In Between Time; I loved that too, but it was piffle compared with this one), and initially trained in sculpture and performance art, but soon decided that he didn't want to make small-scale work that played to the curator and a handful of industry people. So this is what he makes now: not just big sculptures or big spectacles but big possibilities for gathering people into a fold. Works for me: Museum of the Moon is coming to the Norwich & Norfolk Festival in May 2017 and already I want to be there.

From seeing the moon to the feeling of walking on it: designed in collaboration with an architect, Intraverse takes an individual audience member up several flights of stairs before inviting them to buckle on a harness and abseil down again. That's already a massive spoiler so I'll avoid any others, but for me this was a profoundly philosophical work, one that invited participants to contemplate the leaps in life that seem too scary to undertake, and with that the possibility that the place they take you to could be as calm and safe and banal as the habitual already known. Which somehow went beyond how the makers – Vektor Normal and Balint Toth from Hungary – presented it, despite the multiple ways built in to subvert and play with perception.

Of the three games that make up You Are Not Alone, by Italian group Urban Games Factory, the one that articulated perception and snap judgements was by far the most fun and effective. To start, participants are split into two small groups and separated into different rooms. Round my table were four women (two French, one Bulgarian and me, aged roughly 30-50), and the first game required each of us to take turns posing a question, to be answered by the others. There were childish questions (how many brothers and sisters do I have? what's my favourite fruit?), personal questions (how many people have I slept with?) and personality questions (what's the first thing I'd do if I won the lottery?), and with each round we were able to shape our answers with a little more knowledge and consideration. The winner of each round was the person closest to the correct answer, and at the end the overall winner was given a box of biscuits. Really, what more do you want?

The rest of it was less developed; another game invited us to reflect on anger, friendship and happiness, while the third united both groups and sent us on a treasure hunt, which ended with us attempting to fly a banner reading “you are not alone” that proved to be too heavy for the balloons tied to it so had to be truncated to “you are not”. That's work in progress for you: risky.

Saffy Setohy and Bill Thompson's light and sound installation Light Field suffered from this fragility: most people I spoke to dismissed it as unformed, but they'd also spent only a minute or two in the room, when really it needed 10 or 15 minutes to get something out of it. It's still in flux, and I had a lovely chat with Saffy – a choreographer usually – about the various ways in which she's staged it so far and what might be the optimum setting for it, but in this iteration I loved the quiet rhythms of the movement, the ways in which humans gathered unselfconsciously in flocks, scattered and clustered again. The room is dark, but on the ground are a few wind-up torches; the invitation is to carry them around the space, whirring the handle to stir the atmosphere. I did this for a bit but then sat in the corner and watched as the lights brightened and dimmed, drifted and gathered. The simplicity of this unintentional, spontaneous choreography really appealed to me; and to another of the writers, Joris van den Boom, who stood against the wall and successfully startled another participant when they shone a torch into his face.

Even with all that goodness, my afternoon ended on a note of disgruntlement: I saw a couple of not great things, and missed the work everyone else said was super interesting, an installation/lecture by Collectief Walden, a company from the Netherlands comprising an actor, a philosopher, a dramaturg, and a biologist/musician, which is my new favourite model for what a performance ensemble might be. So I joined the “evening with” Rara Woulib in a discordant frame of mind. Based in Marseilles, Rara Woulib are an amorphous group of musician-performers who take their name from Haitian music and carnival traditions, essentially shaping the same in urban settings. I missed them in London in 2014 when they brought Deblozay to Greenwich; there's a glorious review of it by Matt Trueman, savouring its “power and excitement and possibility”. So grumpiness was also woven with expectation that at first wasn't met.

The “evening with” at Travellings was slow to start, slow to coalesce; slow to draw the network and festival public across the street to the Aygalades housing estate, slow to convey a sense of purpose in doing so. As its inhabitants looked down from balconies and windows, I felt an uncomfortable prickle, that we were invading their territory, unasked and unwanted, swarming their landscape with our puffed-up ideas about art. It's a discomfort Rara Woulib acknowledge, I think, and in other ways heighten: our journey took us into an unlit subway, crammed with people and noise, alarming to anyone who experiences even a mild claustrophobia or fear of the dark; walking through it was a kind of scouring, ready for anything that might come next.

What came next was anodyne: a gathering in a higgle of grass festooned with lights and dotted with ramshackle bars serving fruit cocktails. Here the real fun tried to begin, but its rhythm kept faltering; singers surged through the crowd, stamping and swirling and chanting, but then their voices fell silent and a vague sense of boredom returned. It wasn't until we were lured to another clearing, where a long wooden table was set up, laden with fruit and vast trays of sushi, which were carried out to the crowd, while a black woman dressed in a raggedy gown stamped along the table's length, incanting a story I couldn't understand literally but thrilled to emotionally, that something began to click into place. A sense of ritual. Of a different necessity. Of communing beyond self, beyond rationality, beyond purpose.

From here the performers – the women dressed now in white lacy frocks, a chirm of mismatch brides – led us along another path, flicker-lined by candles, snaking further into the Aygalades. As the growing crowd drifted in the wake of their distant music, I realised I'd been to another performance exactly like this in 2014: the Good Friday procession through my mum's village in Cyprus. It starts at the church, once night has fallen; led by priests and the epidaphion, a funeral coach decorated in flowers, bibles and pictures of Jesus, the entire village amasses to re-enact the journey to Christ's burial place. At least, that's the impetus; how it actually plays out is that a bulging line of families and friends gossip and chatter as they meander through their streets, occasionally being offered a splash of holy water and catching the call to chant Amen. The Rara Woulib procession followed these particulars until it reached another clearing, much bigger this time, edges glowing with more flaming torches, half the space set with benches and trestle tables, bowl-plates and cutlery and cauldrons of soup. In two of the corners industrial barbecues crackled, and at the centre, a band began to play. The ritual had reached its zenith in what was effectively an old-fashioned village wedding – and everyone was invited.

That everyone was now a huge number of people: all the festival-goers from earlier in the day, but also teenagers and families and elders of Aygalades, drawn in by the hubbub and now sitting down to eat together. It was gorgeous: a genuine moment of expansive community. And although as the evening progressed the architecture of the whole, the dramaturgy or arc of movement and energy, became more focused and impressive, essentially Rara Woulib's tools were the most basic: meat and bread and vegetable soup; rambunctious music; limitless generosity. The singers included not only members of the group but women from local choirs; the band featured men in costume alongside men in everyday wear, drawn from local bands. The sense of symbiosis was exquisite; so was the kindness of the gesture, the openness of the invitation.

It felt like a wedding; it felt like a village gathering; it also felt like a slap in the face of certain modes of thinking about culture. Earlier in the day, a Greek journalist also invited to Travellings had asked the staff of Lieux Publics: why here? Why not by the docks, somewhere central, where the people of Marseilles can more easily take part? It infuriated me, because this is exactly the value of holding the festival in and alongside Aygalades: the reminder that its inhabitants, too, are the people of Marseilles, easily forgotten or misrepresented or belittled, subject to prejudice and assumption. (To be fair, the Greek journalist appreciated all this later, too.) The evening reminded me of the writing, endlessly inspiring, of Francois Matarasso, a specialist in participatory and community arts, whose free-access books on amateur theatre and rural touring, among others, are luminous with curiosity and compassion. Working from the basic assertion that “everyone has the right to create art and to share the result, as well as enjoy and participate in the creations of others”, he draws a distinction between culture as “how we do what we have to do” – the example he gives is how we choose what to eat, how to prepare it and how to share it – and art as “how we do all the things we don’t have to do. How we sing, dance, play, tell stories, make things up, share dreams, frighten ourselves, arrange objects, make pictures, imagine and all the rest.” This felt so pertinent to this evening with Rara Woulib, where the tools of culture were used to make art – an art in which everyone could participate equally, whether by eating, dancing, or just sitting beneath the stars.

For most of our time in that great green square, Rara Woulib gave the evening to their audience. And then, in the final section, they took it back. The band stopped playing in concert formation and shifted to a new position, at the heart of the informal dance space. They began to sing a final song, a murmur at first, building in volume and urgency, until it seemed to play not from the strings of instruments but the sinews of the bodies held in thrall. A song so Dionysian that satyrs might have clattered among us, stamping out its beat. It grew and grew, surged and crested, and then subsided; softly they began to walk, still singing, shaping a path with their bodies, the audience walking between as their voices scattered like confetti a song of farewell. And so many people refused to leave, clinging to the spell, that eventually they just had to say out loud, goodbye, and still an old and toothless man turned his face to the strangers around him and danced. Power and excitement and possibility. Pleasure and joy and love.

In the midst of the party, I emailed my friend Leo, who also makes work from the tools of food, ritual and generosity, wanting to make him a part of it too. In the midst of the party, I laughed with an American called Jay, who told me he'd never wanted to get married, but now understood why people did. In the midst of the party, I drifted and danced alone and unlonely; I watched a child reach his fingers towards the flame of a torch, guarded by his mum, and cursed the British health and safety laws that would never let that pass; I jostled for ice-cream and was bitten three times by mosquitoes. In the midst of the party I knew I was at the heart of something perfect: a necessary antidote to the violence and inhumanity of socio-political machinations beyond this square of grass. And I was happy.

All images by and copyright Gregoire Edouard, and used with permission. (For a change.)