I arrived quite late to Siobhan Davies Dance’s Next Choreography Festival. The festival was comprised of an all-day event curated by dancer artist Charlotte Spencer which had started at midday on Sunday, 3 July. Although a free event, the last performance programmed for the festival needed to be booked in advance and I had purchased my own ticket a few weeks earlier. This was probably the only reason that saved me from my own excuses about tiredness and unfinished housework. I imagine we can all remember how tiring the week and a half before that Sunday had been.
The ticketed performance was PILGRIM, a solo choreographed and performed by Lucy Suggate. Still I arrived on time to catch up with the end of another piece by Suggate, Swarm Sculptures, performed by participants of the Next Choreography programme.
Sound travels upwards, or so they say. Heat rises too. I arrived that unexpectedly warm Sunday evening to Siobhan Davies’s Roof Studio to find out that it was true – sound and heat were really rising.
The studio had been set up with chairs and benches around a rectangle forming a performance area with four fronts in the middle of the room. The atmosphere felt vibrant and the performers formed and dissolved sculptural clumps in which their heads rested against each other’s bodies. In the time between the formation of one clamp and the next, performers walked somewhat quickly yet not rushing – not quite getting to a speed one could call running. They moved not just within the rectangle delimited by white PVC tape but also in between the rows of seats around the room, which have been placed so to leave enough space in front and behind them for people to pass through easily.
I had a strange feeling of being in Sunday mass or at an open-door plenary session of the city hall of a fictional town from a civilisation that has agreed to give up with talking. It seemed to me that then, if that was the case, we were unsure of why we were there although at the same time we were totally fine with being there. As soon as I found my seat I became equally engaged with the performance and with what was going on in the room. It seemed like everybody was in this similar position in which somehow we were both aware of the piece and of ourselves as part of the event. This happened as we were swallowed now and then by the expanding and contracting swarm of performers who used the corridors between seats to move through. We were part of this event like parishioners of any cult would be part of the rituals attached to such a cult.
And suddenly the swarm was gone. Nobody seemed to be bothered about reacting but everybody noticed. Heads turned here and there as if trying to make sense of what had just happened. It took almost a minute before people felt comfortable to move around and talk to each other.
After some time Suggate herself appeared. She was wearing a long black blouse, adidas tracksuit bottoms and new balance trainers. She entered the room almost too ‘normal’, heading towards a chair in a corner of the performance rectangle. In my fantasy she has come to this plenary session to be judge for witchery but it seemed like she wasn’t bothered with the fact that there was already a verdict, as though it was a ritual but also a formality. Before she had entered the room I had read in the programme notes that “PILGRIM is a physical journey through the mystical sound scores created by electronic musician James Holden.” I couldn’t help but wonder about this room; about the heat, about the vibrancy of the atmosphere and the readiness of the audience to engage as much with each other as with the event at stake today: is this the right environment for a performance which aims for something mystical?
I was self-aware. I smelled my hands and they stank of garlic, onions and – more than anything else – peppers. The result of my housework activities left me feeling too domestic to be surrounded by others in such a socially and ritually heightened space. However, there is something in Suggate that felt also everyday and ordinary. Maybe too everyday and ordinary.
And then it all started. The music was on and Suggate was out. She was out into the performance space but she was also out of herself. I was impressed by the high contrast between the quasi normality of her sitting at a corner in the space a few seconds earlier and the transcendental state and presence that she was suddenly embodying as soon as the music came. The atmosphere in the room hadn’t changed much. We were all still very present in the room and very aware of each other. Very aware of the heat and very aware of the sound that surrounded us. We were really there for a mystical journey but we were also constantly reminded of the banality of being human. Feeding and excretion hand in hand with an aural experience that invited us to transcend corporeality. Suggate’s performance invited us to ignore the banal but in the end the banal became also part of what is transcendental.
Suggate took her blouse off revealing a black space suit-like vest. She took off her shoes, and then her socks, and then put the shoes on again. She took a reusable gel cold-pack meant to cool down injured joints and used it instead to cool herself off, being sensible at first and using a towel to protect her skin from direct contact but soon after rubbing herself with the cold-pack directly, almost violently. She also had a wooden Spanish flowery fan that she used several times when she came to sit back at her chair in the corner of the space. Once she even asked the audience to throw her that fan whilst she was lying on the floor. She did all of these things in between songs. The songs had a relatively short life and each song had attached a particular mystical dance. She wouldn’t get into the quintessence of each dance for a while. At the beginning and in the in-betweens of each song she would be dealing with the practicalities described in this paragraph. These practicalities, and the seriality of the different music tracks (which gave me the impression of listening song after song of the same album the way I used to do in the 80’s when I got alone to listen to my cassettes in my parents’ room) increased the feeling of everydayness. It also made it difficult for me to differentiate what was meant to be part of it and what wasn’t. However, I soon moved into a position where I thought that how could not be like that. How could it not be that the banality surrounding us had to be part of the piece.
When Suggate danced, each section had this sense of connecting with some kind of eerie entity, a different witch for each song. At a point I couldn’t quite understand how she was able to be in that room with everyone else; we that were so present and so aware of each other. I couldn’t understand how within this paradoxical event, both banal and special, she behaved as if she were on her own. For those few seconds during which she seemed to connect with that inner witch, how was it possible for her not to be more self-conscious?
I may be talking from a position of cynicism; it could possibly be that my distrust is simply repressed jealousy – I being jealous of her ability to disconnect from reality and get in touch with a different realm. Yet, it was clear that she was very aware of the room and the piece she was sharing with us appeared to be quite contemporary. However, the piece, by necessity, also had to be an anachronism. Can you be contemporary if you don’t become self-conscious of your fictitious authenticity? Can you be contemporary if you don’t show, quote and have a meta-discourse about your self-consciousness from a place of critical intellectual coolness? Can we go back in history? I don’t think going back in history could ever look as if the past never happened.
On Sunday, 3 July I ended my day not only smelling everydayness but also fascinated by all of this – by the contradictory thoughts that emerged from my amusement with Suggate’s performance; and yet, at the same time, by all the questioning and self-questioning that emerged for me from it.