I go to Walking Stories in Greenwich Park. It is a site-adaptive piece, its own container, but a glance at the tour locations indicates that green landscapes are the canvas.
I pant up the steep hill to General Wolfe’s statue in the middle of the park. It’s humid. The rain has drummed up wet, fresh scents.
This is evocative territory.
Having collected our headphones, the audience gather around choreographer Charlotte Spencer for an introductory talk. She doesn’t give much away; after a welcome she merely acquaints us with the form of the performance and gives us some technical pointers. The performance proper begins when we are plugged into our MP3 players and start listening to soundtracks that have been started simultaneously.
The opening invitation to become “part of a temporary community” is loaded with expectation. Anyone who has been to a silent disco will know that listening to the same thing as your neighbours though headphones is a very particular way of being with other people. It’s like entering a bubble. Camaraderie and solitude come upon me at once. I, for one, feel exceptionally present throughout. I am interested in the others, unabashed about staring at them. There is a contagious, heightened self-awareness coursing through the group – each of us a player, a participant, and an enactor. And you really do have to make Walking Stories happen; the performers don’t do it for you. Over the course of the piece, their appearances as stationary figures poised – sitting, standing and lying – in different constellations are but one aspect of the work. When they stand spaced out in a line they bring to mind frontiers. They look variously grounded, vulnerable, and magnificent. The performers provide touchstones for us, but it’s the audience that has to activate the piece. And it’s a piece that envelops its audience. Walking Stories asks us to do and to repeat. We pace, we observe, we absorb changes. We stop and start, to and fro, circle. How deft we are at doing! How easily we agree to part and reunite!
The audio-walk prompted dedicated complicity. At the suggestion we join up stacks of “things you are interested in”, everyone set to immediately. Later, attention duly turned to creating bridges between these stacks when this was suggested. It was like a lovely kindergarten outdoor play session, but with grown-ups involved. I felt rather important, single-handedly undertaking the construction of a line across a path to connect the stack networks on either side of the path, while the majority of the group concentrated on consolidating another bridge altogether. We were prompted to move on with the walk before I had finished and I left behind a flimsy, half-finished trail of dead chestnut flowers that were being blown away even before I turned away. I walked away problematising a task that had initially appeared fairly plain.
The sound design by Tristan Shorr and Tom Spencer is part instructed choreography, part reflective guide, part field sound and music. I find the tone of voice of narrator Shorr strikingly literal – surprisingly so – given that the nature of the language varies greatly from instructive to informative to poetic. There are times when I find myself momentarily stumped, somehow having lost my footing. I have a sense of watching myself, my attention, throughout the journey – detecting the limitations of my imagination, noticing when I feel like I have missed or misunderstood something or a planted instruction has gone awry. Emphatic statements jar with me a little. The experience of being told I am now “invisible”, unexpectedly, or that my “chest is rising up”, when it isn’t, is strange. At times, the way the narration flits between illusory states and body imagery feels like a curve ball. Such language diverts my thoughts to vague ideas about guided meditation and induced hypnosis. I experience a sensation akin to missing some information in a somatic technique class.
That said, the subsequent narrative “doubling up” that I experience has its own delicious flavour: as scripted action is narrated in a facilitative mode, live action unfolds in parallel. I am prompted and sometimes I fall behind, like I do with reading when text on a screen scrolls up and out of sight at a speed I can’t keep up with. At these moments, I want more time for things to sink in and start meaning more to me. But it’s not a “slow class”. It is a repetitive one, though. Indeed, repetition of instructions is what allows patterns and echoes to emerge – and with these, my opportunity for meaning making. My teeth sink into the associative leaps and deviations I experience as well as the more focused episodes. It feels like something of a meditation on going with the flow. I love not having to make rational decisions about my journey – the bliss of being led.
I find the interjections of expansive, explanatory nuggets of received wisdom a little strange in juxtaposition with the other material; at times, the line between cosmic imagery, scientific explication and poetry becomes murky for me. In my head, elements of the narration are in the same ballpark as Bill Bryson’s educational tome A Short History of Nearly Everything. One pity about this conflation of tones is I become a little sceptical about the content. With numerous different modes of address and sources of material being overlaid, I reach points of oversaturation and resistence. I wonder whether the individual parts are greater than their sum.
I hear some exquisite field sounds collected, I assume, en route over the course of Cycle Stories, Charlotte Spencer’s previous work. There were some particularly transporting soundscapes of a thunderstorm, of children playing, of conkers hitting the ground. These atmospheric samples set the mood during moments of pause, while music with a driving “onwards!” feeling marks the phases where we are on the move. Later on, Shorr touches on the archeology of roads and the affirmation they offer that “you are walking where others have walked before”. With the soundtrack encompassing so many different times and locations, I feel an overwhelming sense of the past. The narration addresses the ephemerality of the present moment, the traces that people leave behind, the tangling of lines and pathways. But while such ideas keep resurfacing, they feel too shallowly explored to resonate strongly. Perversely, I suspect that the privilege of having heard social anthropologist and author Tim Ingold give a talk (Crossing Borders, 2011) elucidating his thinking around life being “a process of movement” may have impaired my appreciation of the light appropriation of some of his ideas in Walking Stories. However, I empathise with the artistic choice to reference them. This hang up is firmly in my court.
There is joy in Walking Stories. I laugh at the muted barks of yappy dogs perturbed by a circular path we are treading, running, powering. I delight in my private laughter – the feeling of it, rather than the sound of it (it doesn’t disturb me or anyone else as it ordinarily might). These spontaneous occurrences thrive, yet there is nothing informal about this walk. This is no idle stroll. It’s a trip, a choreographic experiment, complete with external observers (the non-performing artistic team, who stand by trees and sit in the grass watching their plans unfurl, and passersby). I pick up on a virtuous, therapeutic current that runs through the veins of this project. There is a team spirit amongst the creators; everyone’s tangibly invested. The desire to rebel dwindles as my suggestibility increases and I enjoy more and more how these simple instructions belie the intricate dance that they cue.
Walking Stories has more English tour dates coming up this August and September in Canterbury, Eastleigh & Hastings, as well as further touring in Spring 2014 in the UK and France.
Concept and Direction: Charlotte Spencer
Music and Sound Design: Tristan Shorr, Tom Spencer
Text, Dramaturgy: Charlotte Spencer, Jennifer-Lynn Crawford, Bruno Humberto
Narration: Tristan Shorr
Additional Artists: Rohanna Eade, Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot, Janine Harrington, Simon Pascoe
Film (Cycle Stories): David McCormick
Graphic design: Studio Sara Popowa, Alex Moran
Photography: Pari Naderi, Alex Moran, Kimbal Bumstead, David McCormick
Production and Management: Morton Bates Arts Services
Cook, Bike and People Fixer: Alex Moran