Her fringe looks great. A finely chopped chestnut fringe with triangular split seams in just the right places. Controlled disorder. On screen, performing in the fifth of Eleanor Sikorski’s Love Songs 2013, she is tossing her long hair for the camera. A woman’s voice speaks. Low, monotonous and with little feeling: “If you don’t know what to do, just grab my penis”. Her hair looks perfect as it dances, stray strands flick across her face, clasped by static energy. Each cascade is filmic, seductive on a bed sheet canvassed background. But her askance eyes say that she doesn’t have a fucking clue what’s going on. What’s expected. Who’s watching. It’s uncomfortable. This relationship: it’s uncomfortable. We’re exposed, both looking at the distance between us.
STEVE isn’t uncomfortable. STEVE grins through the fake beard-wig he holds proudly in front of drawn on stubble, prowling the audience with fervent, bright eyes. Wolfish, something rattles deep in STEVE’s throat. A voice both unnerving and inescapable burbles out with a giggle, then a growl. On the table is a feast of heavy liquid-laden fruit. The type of fruit that STEVE prefers remains ambiguous, but each piece is pulped with undiscerning ardour into and through STEVE’s clothes, fingers and hair, some real, some fake. STEVE dances hard and rapturously with a brutal, pleasing honesty. Visceral, croaking with passion, formidable and feral, completely open even if I don’t understand everything STEVE is telling me. STEVE is passionate with an unexpected amicability. I don’t know STEVE and wouldn’t know what to say to him, but it is a shocking relief to laugh, sitting down here on the floor in the dark. I was scared I might be seen or called to account. I came into all this rather late. But STEVE has the stage. It’s all alright.
This is FRINGE and I’m at the edge, on the periphery of my understanding and on the brink of being overwhelmed. I’m coming up against the Fringe. The fringe shimmers at the edge of excess, “doing more than is necessary for the sake of delight” (BELLYFLOP), but it is also in the fray, exposed and exposing. It’s all blurred, disorientating edges. The performers push themselves to operate at this edge, the fine line between the stage light and the dark eyes of the audience, at the fibrous surface of the text on the paper, and I am drawn emphatically to meet them there. Yet here, meeting at FRINGE, makes the gap between us more tangible, more distressing. How can I respond in kind?
Two performances and two concurrent installations take place on the opening night of FRINGE. Sitting alongside is a publication of new writing, and pocketed at the back is a DVD containing those Love Songs by Eleanor Sikorski. Within these many different performance spaces the tangled threads of FRINGE are teased out. It is consistently framed as a place of extremes, of pushing towards limits – perhaps one’s own limits – and as such is awarded the potential of a transformational movement. Yet this mythologised place, so very other to the everyday, is simultaneously presented as part of the integral weave of what could be common ground. And as such I am warily unconvinced by its supposed separateness. The festival proposes to reclaim the fringe as a place of power. But I think that there may be power in recognising the commonality of our limits, our fragile membranes, the points where we blur and are uncertain. The place where the performer works and draws their audience to. A space that is personal, individual and separate, but also sympathetic, understanding and understandable. Close but contained. It is the splayed existence at the fringe.
It’s not a comfortable place. Strength is tested by precarity; the fantastic rubbing up against the pragmatic. At the Fringe you have to be so very hard to survive, whilst still exposing your underbelly. You can’t hold back. You must throw your whole self into it. Put yourself on the line.
Terminal, the end, the beginning, the launch pad to somewhere else, is the heavy beat showdown to the first evening of BELLYFLOP’s dance festival choreographed by Johnson-Small. The dancer – hand outstretched towards the direction of movement – strides across the stage, the top-half of her body stiff and static as her strong legs carry her onwards. She is tough: a glamorous woman in a tight black dress that flexes and recedes like a Lycra tide across small, strong muscles. While opening and closing doors, stepping up and over steps, moving through obstacles, her hand travels to and from her mouth. Is she eating or blowing kisses? She repeats her motions over and over, each time from a slightly different starting point, working inside a pattern I can’t quite fathom. In each revolution, each repeat, her fierce head is tilted at alternating angles, turning subsequently from each place to the next until just once she faces us. For a second we can see that the darkness around her eyes glitters like a superhero mask: the disguise of a cat burglar about to take something invaluable. Flash-black trainers march to the pounding control of the base that just goes on and on. She works hard. At what I’m not sure. Maybe everything. Finally she does pause, reclining on a stage littered with nonchalant party balloons.
Writing for BELLYFLOP’s special FRINGE publication, Francisco Carbello argues that tumescent peripheral spaces lost their credibility with the end of ideologies and the subsequent loss of distinctions between the cultural centre and its margins. He states that, “Radicalism gave way to predictable experimentation, dogmatic realism, commercialism and above all, ferocious careerism for artists and critics alike.” So here we are, all together, fighting it out. If there really is “nothing but mainstream, the rest sheer stimulation” then what defence do we have for being here? What excuse is there for pretending to be so wild when really we are all in the zoo? And which side of the bars are we on? How much is a performance: a performance of the Fringe?
She is on the floor: animal, cat-like, alluring. But this is outwardly scripted. It is rigid, prescribed and repeated. She holds back from how sexy her body is. She moves deliberately, carefully on all fours across the stage to the place where she must move from next. But then she contorts and the movement, the movement is so sleek, so strong, even though she is on her knees, watching herself. A little hurt tags along with each gesture of powerful, purposeful grace.
Hurt and strength is written into Alexandrina Hemsley’s piece, Moments Before. I read the three wall mounted texts in between performances with increasing difficulty. Alex is a friend and I feel both pride and distress reading her writing, yet am grateful for the empathy I can find in it and through it. She isn’t there and she is. There is a terribly real and unavoidable gap between us, but at least I can see across it.
The first of Alex’s three texts is the largest, encased in a decadent gilded frame; the smart way to present your ideas and dreams. But the confident, attention seeking presentation doubles with her non-presence. A trace in text rather than a body on the stage. When her physical self does appear it is reticent, curled up in private, domestic settings: sat on the washing machine or hiding behind the sofa, the top of her hair betraying her whereabouts. She knows she can’t disappear even when she is not there: “I hide behind my words but vanishing completely from my viewer is impossible”. This is about getting past the blurb in the blurb. The blurb is the “main event”; an exposure of self-hood and driving ambition that thrusts forward only to be tempered by self-doubt. Excitement and pride splendidly dressed up for the occasion in “feathered hats” are balled over by the fear that fashions them as foolish. She writes “You left me anyway”. Who? A lover, a friend, the viewer, or a sense of her own legitimacy?
On the other side of the theatre are two smaller texts. One is small and oval; mirror-like. The other rectangular and portrait as if the page of a book. The curved-face-shaped text is self discerning in its sadness, quipping at its own “ludicrous angst”. Here she is young, uncertain, tracing the memory of “ivory scars and difference feeling terrifying”. In the harder shape she is a self-aware professional asking the question “How can I recover, stand still, do everything and still be hopeful about choreography and all its extended practice.” All its extended practices, including worrying about her ageing parents, paying rent, grooming, navigating the pitfalls of social networking, being supportive and supported, and battling through London on a bike with no gears just to finally get into the studio.
To be on the Fringe can mean precarity, fear and distress, which we may accept or simply expect: “To succeed with scarce resources is proof enough of the ability to master the cost benefit analysis” (Francisco Carbello in FRINGE). Hamish MacPherson writes that he feels “very comfortable in these fluid public spaces. There’s some kind of equality in our separateness: everyone walking, waiting, embarking, leaving”, but when a friend calls with the good news about the birth of a fourth child his inner reverie is pushed aside by this intercontinental voice that asks to be congratulated, to affirm their inequality and their connectedness. He is glad when the call cuts out. At the end it says “Hamish gave up a career as a civil servant to become a choreographer.”
The Fringe is not the outside; it is the serrated edge that breaks things open. The loose ends that entangle with the glittering tendrils of something possible, often whilst trying to hold onto the threads of the main weave. It is a vulnerable position as much as it is potent and dangerously affirmative. Being on the fringe means putting yourself in the mix, through the mixer. “I have a chance to occupy this golden edged space and for one performance I am” (Moments Before, 2011). I am familiar with pride as a fault that can so easily become ridiculous. It is the danger of vanity woven into self-doubt. The crying fury when I embarrass a more prideful sense of self by exposing the fraying edges. But I have to grudgingly admit that it is the broken edges, the upset pride, that help me to know my limits by shattering an all too fragile sense of integrity. And I find it pertinent that it is two physical cataclysms – two tears, two rips, two scars, one inner and one outer – that form a the map for those permeable boundaries and chart a centre onto which I can hold fast. Two moments that shoved me out of and back into myself where I could be a choice of my own; could become an open-ended agreement.
How do we reclaim the fringes as a site of power? Perhaps by recognising that they are not so far away, so separate. The fringe is not so very unfamiliar, yet still tempting, difficult and other. Is there not a tough, half-broken and hopeful fringe that we all know? Really, “I think you know as much as I do” (You Know, Eleanor Sikorski Love Songs 2013). Maybe we are more types of animals then we thought. “So let’s fall apart, let’s not worry about communicating clearly. Let’s not try to be cool and sexy. In fact let’s try to go the opposite way a little.” (Dan Watson interview by Flora Wellesley Wesley in FRINGE). STEVE made me feel uncertain, squirmy in my uncomfortably crouched position in the dark, but really I am deeply envious. FRINGE makes me want to do a BELLYFLOP: to break open the water with my awkwardly soft and nauseous belly. To be “empowered, mischievous, frank, wanton” at the Fringe, rather than sat here in the dark, crowded, but alone and afraid of a gnawing, deliciously “wicked aspiration to be embarrassing”.
Hannah Newell is a writer and artist currently studying at the Royal College of Art in London. Read more of her writing at http://newellposts.wordpress.
STEVE by Zinzi Buchanan
Moments Before by Alexandrina Hemsley
Terminal by immigrants and animals (performed by Mira Kautto, choreographed by Jamila Johnson-Small)
FRINGE Publication Articles:
For and Against: An arbitrary history of the Fringe by Francisco Carbello
Fringe Travel by Hamish MacPherson
Love Songs by Eleanor Sikorski
Ridiculous Dancing by Flora Wellesley Wesley