Agony Art: electronics, shitsticks, live coding & reactionary superheroes


Cheap Blue

Lights come up on a blonde woman – Joop Oonk – wearing red lipstick, black lycra shorts, sports bra and trainers. She stands in the corner of a square marked out stage right by white tape on the black lino floor. A dance a little like the game Mouse Trap ensues, and the OCD dancing-cum-choreographic workout feels more predictable than exciting. Hamster on the same old circuit. Cheap Blue lurches out of the tunnel vision section in the ‘hamster box’, sound and lighting change in step, and screeches around corners in a joyride away from where it began. I feel left behind and confused. This woman’s body feels pumped in this space, this ultra ‘here we all are’ studio space. Oonk feels super-imposed, like a hologram, so distanced do I feel. It sort of fascinates me.

The choreography, stringent at first, varies from gif-like head and shoulder shaking to strident, measured paces and shin scoots. The head shaking has more than a touch of zombie about it… A trend emerges – everything that is given attention will be scrapped: spatial boundaries; the relationship of voice and electronic sound; carnal behaviours; direct address. All the toys are thrown out of the pram.

Oonk travels wantonly through the space before confronting the audience downstage, two forefingers up to her face in a ‘v’ as she mouths empty words at us, her body undulating in slow motion to pumping music. I appreciate, with surprise, seeing the other performer and composer, Annelie Nederberg, has distinguished herself — getting up from her seat and kicking her chair aside from behind her desk, her own red lipstick now amock. After a final blast of dancing on her hands and knees, Oonk springs up and stalks off through the corridor that parts the audience. There is an unbridledness about this episode that verges on riveting (is it its gratuitousness?) but my interest is ultimately characterised by the fact I am confounded by the piece. As a play of differences it is committed in each moment of execution, but these moments do not seem to stick or add up and as a whole, it does not hold water. In the end, I stop trying to meet it in the middle.

Frozen Venus

Two performers dressed in black, bring on acoustic instruments homemade by Spowage and, amusingly, the sounds they make are evocative of any number of things that let out high-pitched squeals, whines and bleats: babies, animals, toys, joke cards… The last two are brought on pressed against one performer’s back by the other. This image of a stick-up is nicely foiled by the daft wheezing noise emanating from the instrument’s muffled end. Other narrative images arise when these instruments serve as extensions of, or in relation to, the performers: a bull lolloping around, a mother holding on tight to her young, a drunk staggering around, arms flailing. These images are gratifying in their way, but the glaring asset of these objects – their sound – does not feel nuanced on the ear. Surely these are instruments first, and props second?

There was more drone than remittance, and with eight or so instruments in action at once, it was an animated gabble for the most part. This heightened the relief when, one by one, they were turned off. There was something sweet and bedtime story-ending-like about it, a whiff of loss in the air.
Subtler transactions like this tapped into the instruments’ anthropomorphic attributes and undertones. However, this sensitivity of handling was not sustained; Pappa and Spowage’s physical relationships to the instruments were often clumsy and approximate and their choreographic reasoning, fluffy. Though I enjoyed aspects of the looseness of manner in the performance, these characterful contraptions warranted more rigorous and sensitive handling. There was little sense that Pappa and Spowage had anything in particular they were pursuing. I wanted to see involvement with these materials and what I saw, more often than not, was play-acting/making rather than actual investigation. I think actual investigation is more fun.

Pointing Beard & The Codettes (Shelly Knotts and Konstantinos Vasilakos) with Sophie Arstall, Mariana Camiloti, Antonio de la Fe, Evangelia Kolyra, Manou Koreman, Martine Painter and Petra Söör

The space has changed; the sound desk is on the diagonal upstage left, commanded by ‘laptop performers’ Knotts and Vasilakos. There is a screen in the upstage right corner with live coded musical streams projected on to it.

This is a blind date, and the performers let us take pleasure in the suspended moments before they start. I wonder how many hours ago they met, whether they had a decision-making conversation, or whether they just got to know one another a bit, or whether just got on with it.

To begin, de la Fe is cued; ‘Antonio’ appears on the projection. He’s on. He takes his prompt, enters the space, and makes those precious first few traces on the stage – a simple statement, dynamically punctuated. He holds something in his hand: a Wii stick. A game format is established in the performance whereby individual ‘players’ are nominated/cued to take possession of the remote when their name appears on the screen. I don’t quite know the function of this. Are they taking up some other kind of mantle in this exchange? Is it a proxy for staying connected to each another, or for staying aware? Can I take an interest in this piece of plastic being passed through space? This baton-passing ritual becomes enmeshed in the sense of co-responsibility and role-playing the dancers adopt. Before long there is so much else going on that the object itself becomes incidental, the thing registers and disappears on my radar fluidly.

Everyone looks and sounds prepared. I see some miraculous dancing – sinuous, connected, articulate. There seems to be a kind of fabric integrating everyone’s language. What is the connective tissue? It has prowess, lucidity. Certainly, there is an ease with moving between horizontality and verticality, uprightness and ‘falling with style’, as Buzz Lightyear would say. Rocking, rising, assisting, resting. The seven of them work humbly yet with appetite. The space contracts and dilates with their configuration: they cluster, stretch wide and go deep. Nodes of activity build up and dissipate. There is a predominant, organic attraction to the middle of the stage, which gradually subsides as the dancers make offshoots to the perimeters of the space.

There is quite a bit of on-stage costume changing and tampering that feels a little vacuous at first, but as the messiness escalates and attitudes change in chime with an emergent superhero theme, I relax into the dancers’ choices. Some complex visual tableaux emerged when, spatially staggered at different depths, the form and gaze of the dancers came into a sense of a single image. These eureka moments of near-stasis and togetherness were a delight; these were the times when I felt a unified casting off from the sound, some fleeting form of self-determination.

Both the sound and the movement were rich, textured, varied. However, the two together felt quite claustrophobic. I have a bit of a bug-bear about the density of electronic music alongside performance. The music felt like a wall between the audience and the performers. It is my idea of a frustrating time: dancing in a sonically hemmed-in environment. How to negotiate such a thick and overbearing atmosphere? Who’s having to work harder in this blind date? Call me biased, but I’m pretty sure it’s the dancers. The dancers have to get strategic, to try to be a foil or compliment to the music. How can you be a counterpoint to music that will always win, engulf, overwhelm? What of slow-burn and sparsity, I wonder. I don’t dislike the music, but I dislike what the musical choices are doing to the dancing in principle, rendering it reactionary and somewhat powerless. That said, witnessing the dancers exploring the idea of possessing a superpower whilst in a ‘lower hand’ position was an interesting meditation on failure.


Cheap Blue created and performed by JA NO company: Joop Oonk & Annelie Nederberg

Frozen Venus created and performed by Danai Pappa & Neal Spowage

Pointing Beard & The Codettes (Shelly Knotts & Konstantinos Vasilakos) with Sophie Arstall, Mariana Camiloti, Antonio de la Fe, Evangelia Kolyra, Manou Koreman, Martine Painter and Petra Söör

​Performances supported technically by Tom Wylds

Thanks to everyone at Chisenhale Dance Space for their support and hospitality.