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.)

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