I am defensive against accusations of being overly sensitive about minority issues. It’s the manifestation of my post-postcolonial guilt for supporting affirmative action. So, I entered the theatre after the interval hugely aware of being in the minority space at Sadler’s Wells (the Lilian Baylis Studio, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty was on the main stage) having watched two works featuring black dancers in an evening of works with women on every choreography by-line.
BELLYFLOP’s Flora Wellesley Wesley told me this diversification of the stage is not the aim of the collective, ‘It just is what it is.” She was right to put my limiting, box-ticking mentality at rest and encourage me to just watch the work for what it is. So, I returned to an earlier mental giggle over Seke Chimutengwende’s description of sheep heaven-‘sheaven’.
The first thing I noticed as I took my seat was that the stage was littered with hundreds of objects that had been ‘loaned’ by various sources. A disco ball, gold and silver plastic flamingos, a red sofa, two beach umbrellas, a chess set sitting on a clothes horse, stuff everywhere. It was all remarkably brandless, except for two indiscreet Wilson racquets.
The Mermaid and The Hammer opened with two women sitting side-saddle in pink/red tops with their legs bound by teal knitted mermaid flippers. Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, waiting for a proposal that will never come. As the lights went down, I noticed they each had the piece’s namesake hammers in their hands. Were the hammers there when I entered?
The piece was determinately contemplative in its pacing. I was transported to Maguy Marin’s Description d’un Combat. I don’t usually write about the work I see. So, with my pen and pad at the ready, I felt obliged to fill the silences with scribbling. I read the notes now and realize they’re just dribble. The act of note-taking made me a self-conscious viewer, unable to confidently inhabit the interstitial fluid of the piece.
The programme notes say the piece is about comedy and choreography. For me, it was about subtle manipulations in performance that transmit meaning, and the equally small shifts in biology that mark evolutionary change. A lifted hammer enunciates the sound of boredom; Den lille Havfrue gazing at land above becomes the artist on stage acknowledging our joint excursion into the absurd. Similarly, two mermaids copulate to make primates to make humans to make tea-drinking politicians with golden five-o’clock shadows to make Zara Phillips atop a horse.
This work is undoubtedly brave. Gillie Kleiman and Karen Lambæk committed to the idea, and carefully selected the set of movement possibilities that focused the viewer’s gaze and musings. The performers astutely point out that Mariah Carey’s hand riffing, and the blowing kisses, have become movements with universal meaning that are inherently ridiculous.
In the end, I was left wondering about all the stuff. Would the offering have benefitted from clinical lighting and minimal set to focus our energy on the unfolding narrative? Would that have resulted in something akin to Xavier le Roy’s Self Unfinished? As we accompanied the central action, the periphery of objects disappeared in my tunnel-vision examination of the smallest of movements. Would I begrudge the loss of this magic trick if we stripped the stage?
Californian Ankur Bahl is a documentary artist who creates work for stage, television, film and print. As a performer, he’s worked for companies including DV8, RSC, Tara Arts, and NDC Wales. Ankur loves tweed suits. Check out his RSC blog. Ankur also wrote about Cake.
Women on all fours emerged as a theme during The BELLY of the Beast. It is an image that embodies what was exciting about the event – the pieces did not just provide us with interesting things to look at but interrogated how we look at them by bending over in front of us. This feels especially poignant when curated by an all female line-up. The Mermaid and the Hammer fitted comfortably into the evening in this respect and the pulling down of a fish tail to expose spangly golden trousers beneath was one such image.
We entered the theatre to encounter two performers lazing nonchalantly, stranded amongst a sea of colourful tat. The highlight of the opening image was the knitted fishtails worn by the duo and I spent the first few minutes wondering by whom, where and how they came into existence. As they began to lazily hammer the floor, the juxtaposition between the spectacle of the mermaid and the practical labour of hammering set the mood for what is to come. The piece lumbers forth, morphing through images of Blair-esque gestures, performed in a baboon mask, towards boy-band style miming in glitter beards extracted from teacups. Eventually, mimed horse riding becomes kisses blown towards the audience in a fittingly anti-climatic finish. This slow transformation between images is underlined by a plinkety plonkety piano throughout, adding to the sense of being dragged slowly through representations that achieve the ‘delicious suspension’ stated in the programme notes by using pace as its main weapon.
The world of the piece was effectively crafted and felt like a too-close-for-comfort dystopia. Everything was slow – even the fade out persisted. The piece left me wanting to run out of the theatre into manic productive activity, away from the laborious world of tat, glitter and gestures that go nowhere.
Megan Saunders is a dance artist whose activities focus primarily on learning, participation and territory. She is currently researching the body and privatisation of space and is excited by the gaps between things. Megan also wrote about Improvisation.