Still House/Dan Canham: Ours was the Fen Country

Performers: Neil Paris, Tilly Webber & Dan Canham. Photo: Camilla GreenwellPerformers: Neil Paris, Tilly Webber & Dan Canham. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Each element is as important as the others, they say in the post-show Q&A. 

Yes, I can see that. Lighting, sound design, live speech, the recorded speech of other people, objects in the space and movement each seem to occupy their own space in Ours was the Fen Country, each given room to breathe, the connections available but not enforced. Despite the multi-artform nature of the work, this is no Gesamtkunstwerk; the parts are not sucked into a whole. It is very measured.

I keep imagining something stringy, like stretched out mozzarella or a pulled-out ball of yarn or, I suppose, a stringed instrument. Maybe a harp? No, fewer strings, for sure. I pay attention to one or two of these lines at once and then move on. It’s not a spectatorial technique or anything; it just seems to be what the performance does. It’s not my way but its.

It’s very sparse, they say.

Yes, it is. The set is practical: some seats, a table with some technical things, bits of wood offering movable frames for the action, and, in the last moments, reminding me of a maypole. The lighting often makes the performers seem far away from one another, and the sound comes from multiple, sometimes-lit speakers, widening and lengthening and deepening the space. In the expanse the dancing and speaking and lip-synching happens bit by bit, sometimes overlapping, never overwhelming.

The actions are induced by layers upon layers of instruction, they say.

Ah yes, quite right. The performers are busy, in all the sparseness. They haven’t much to do, I guess you could say – they hardly break out a sweat. But they are occupied, occupied with the practical thinking of performing: of relating to one another, to sounds, to words, to previous experiences and maybe to the present moment, maybe to us in the audience. A calmly heightened living, perhaps.

At the same time this is a distraction technique. They are sort of not-there, too busy with their jobs to be busy with performing –

They are ‘channelling,’ they say.

Channelling, yes. They are channelling the voices of people who live in the Fen Country. They are not themselves but conduits for others’ thoughts. The usual seductive charisma of the performer is stripped away to make a clear passage for something else to come through. The possibility for the dreaded couplet of tweeness and earnestness is strongly held at bay.

The people are the ‘big characters’ of the Fens, they say.

The process of channelling – or rather the processes

the finding the interviewing the recording the listening the editing the selecting the re-ordering the building the learning the rehearsing the performing the performing the performing

have squeezed the big characters into bits.

The Fens are bleak, they say.

Yes, but are the people?, I think. They can’t be as small or as quiet as they seem, ghosts present because they have been summoned by art, not because they have another purpose here. I think about coolness and urgency.

Something about movement, they say.

They do say something, not much, but something, but I can’t bring it back now. Perhaps it’s not important, but we’re in a dance house and it seems like it could be. The dances are the things the performers do most together, folk dances to bring the spirits they have collected into community. These dances ping off references to joyfulness and communitas and cooperation but don’t fill my heart with the ideals. They are going through the motions, motions that maybe belong to someone else, or maybe motions that are lacking a body.

The work feels dislocated in me. I have a lighting state in my shoulder and a moving mouth behind my eyes and an East Anglian voice in my knee. But – and I feel my own ghosts of recovering conceptualism shaking as I write – I’m missing a little warmth in my heart.



Performers: Neil Paris, Ian Morgan, Tilly Webber, Dan Canham

Direction and Sound Design: Dan Canham

Choreography: Dan Canham and the company

Assistant Director and Lynchpin: Laura Dannequin

Production Management: Luke Murray

Lighting Design: Malcolm Rippeth

Costumes: Laura Dannequin

Interviews conducted by: Dan Canham and Laura Dannequin

Producers: MAYK