The BELLY of the Beast – Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small: O

Image credit: Camilla GreenwellImage credit: Camilla Greenwell


Oh! Woah! Woooaaooooh.

Am I avoiding starting?

There is something intimidating about writing about Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamilla Johnson-Small’s O. It’s a feeling that they are smuggling past me – in full theatre view – something I can’t quite grasp, like I’m missing the small print, or need to follow my every thought with an extensive apologetic footnote. There is something uncomfortable about it; that’s also interesting.

It feels crude to say that this is a work about gender and race. It’s more nuanced than that, but if you are reading this without having seen the show then perhaps it is OK to begin here.

Where to begin?

O actually begins. First a velvet-clad bottom-up dance pulsing to the masked threats of Zebra Katz’s Ima Read; with heads down over a selection of books and bums up, at first this sustained image does something Cartesian. I am unsure if I’m on the right track and a little investigation reveals a more sinister story in the lyrics, through which I learn that to “read” is not the activity aimed toward intellectual self-improvement, but is an act of “verbally insulting an opponent about something not so apparent to the average viewer”*. I suddenly feel like the average viewer for whom the subtext is obscured by her own ignorance, by narrow reading, or by limited cultural exposure. Not for the first time I am aware of all the references that I don’t understand. On reflection my initial outsider feeling feels…well, more substantiated.

O is well underway before the debate about how to begin. This comes as a pre-recorded conversation excited with ideas of the “ideal relationship” and admission that the audience would never see something finished. They are talking about seeing, being and doing, all of which are continuous. So rather than an acknowledgment of failure, or lowering of expectations, the point seems to be something more honest and difficult to name, the way the really honest things often are.

how to be

how to be seen

get something

have something got

have something to give

be seen to be

have something to be

be something to have

have to be something

Perhaps it is that the whole thing had already begun before the show, and couldn’t be contained by it, and wasn’t stable enough, or enough one thing to be seized upon. Is that a reason not to begin? We’re already here aren’t we?

Of the dancing, some moments felt as though they were performed under a kind of generalised duress; movement that might have come from highly sexualised music videos performed with technical adeptness and a certain nonchalance.  At other moments I felt I was voyeur to some ecstatically joyful bedroom dancing, performed not for the audience but for the self, and I enjoyed the permission to see.

Throughout the piece O played with its position to the audience. At one point the listen-with-mother voice of a white, middle-class (sounding) man seemed to emanate from the audience, speaking some explicit lines without flinching. Later, members of the audience were invited on stage and each given one of the private-view-style beers that had been waiting under the ferns. (I haven’t mentioned so much of what happened. Forgive me.) There was a curious moment as the performers proceeded to get changed behind the ferns, in front of which sat a middle-aged man drinking his beer and watching. Most of the audience could see behind the ferns, but I was interested in what this man in between us and them, and the partial censorship, were doing. I was drawn to watching the man watch. In that moment I wondered if I wasn’t just seeing myself watching them. Seeing them being seen, it reaffirmed a sort of distance I had felt throughout the work.

Perhaps my desire to grasp the content of the work more fully within the medium of its presentation is really just a sign that I need to work harder… So maybe in the words of Zebra Katz I’m “gonna get that bitch some knowledge”*.



Janine Harrington is an artist based in London. She works as a choreographer, performer and writer across a range of projects. Janine also wrote about Improvisation.



O and Cake are bold, assured performances. I expected nothing less given the artists involved and the context of the event. They are also, deliciously for me, the antithesis of each other.

O is an uncompromising, brazen, dismissal of customary performer/audience relations. With the performers’ stance established through recorded discussions around the work (“I just want to be left alone…I get something and they get something and that’s it…”), the piece is a curious combination of restrained extroversion, underscored with a mix of 80’s pop and drum ’n’ bass.

Much of what we see is veiled. The lighting forms silhouettes or makes features indistinguishable; long wigs curtain their faces; movement is performed facing away from us; we gaze at a bare stage whilst the performers move through the audience, or watch selected audience onstage drinking beer whilst book-ended by the performers shaking their thong-attired booties. Clothes, books, sections…are quickly discarded. Although often physically exposed, they are emotionally impenetrable. We watch on their terms, but I am ‘off the hook’, given permission to take from it what I will. Feisty.


Fiona Millward has been an independent dance artist since 1985 and Co-Director of Independent Dance since 1996. She is currently on sabbatical from ID, whilst she ponders what’s next. Fiona also wrote about Cake.