Bodies on stage constantly surprise me. The ways in which they tumble, contort and embrace; their capacity to startle and to move – in all senses of the word. The way they both betray and are betrayed. The small movements that become saturated with meaning. Watching contemporary dance – an art form I don’t see nearly enough of – I’m just as likely to be struck by the odd twist of a hand or flick of a head than by the overall execution of the choreography, about which I’m almost entirely ignorant. I find myself drawn instead to gesture and interaction; to the way that bodies meet, part and respond to one another in the space.
So how does a writer with a love for but embarrassing ignorance of dance respond to a programme of performance that is flirting with dance vocabularies in a venue usually dedicated to contemporary dance?
Forest Fringe’s fleeting residency at The Place is an intriguing meeting of performance practices, an inter-disciplinary experiment in curation and audience engagement. Over two nights, the organisations have co-curated a range of performances and installations that dance delicately around genre distinctions, standing at the intersection(s) between theatre, live art, contemporary dance, performance and participation. It’s both dance and not-dance.
In watching, I can only react to the bodies. I’m reminded, aptly, of the words of Forest Fringe’s Andy Field: “Theatre is a space in which we can ask questions that only our bodies can answer.” Theatre does things with bodies just as much as it does things with words. And the same goes for the performances I see at The Place: they do things with bodies.
In Gillie Kleiman’s DANCE CLASS: a performance, our bodies as audience members form the material of the piece. After being ushered into the room in darkness, we close our eyes and are invited to inhabit our own bodies more fully – specifically, our hands: their connection with the floor, their movement, the bones and muscles that form them. It feels part meditation, part piss-take, Kleiman delivering everything with her tongue more or less firmly in her cheek. Despite the lightly mocking flavour, though, it’s oddly relaxing. I find my fingers tingling as they press down into the ground or flex in the air.
Before long, though, our bodies are found to be wanting. Leading her strange, ever-shifting dance class, Kleiman is brisk and occasionally bullying, leaving no doubt as to who is in control here. She teaches; we try, we fail. Reflexes are too slow, muscles reluctant to mimic the moves demonstrated by Kleiman. Whose bodies are really important in this space? the piece begins to ask between laughs. Whose show is this? Lightly, playfully, tongue still planted in cheek, Kleiman prods at interaction and its often obscured power dynamics. Our bodies might be the raw material, but who in the end is sculpting them?
If 27 is also (intermittently) playful, that’s where its similarities with DANCE CLASS: a performance end. The relationship with dance in Peter McMaster’s tender, bruising show is less explicit, but nonetheless it is overwhelmingly about bodies – bodies that live and love and die. This is all wrapped up in a structure that resembles nothing so much as ritual, from its slowly burning incense sticks to its ceremonial scatterings of ash. The two bodies on stage in front of us – McMaster’s and fellow performer Nick Anderson’s – are here, visibly and thrillingly alive, in order to think together about death.
The title refers to the “27 club”, that morbidly romanticised group of musicians – including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse – who all died at the same age McMaster is now coming to terms with. Death, then, is a constant and in some ways alluring presence in 27, but so too is life in all its joy and heartbreak and messiness. In contrast to all the unthinkingly mythologising responses to those “live-fast-die-young” icons, 27 is complex and personal and humane, acknowledging the appeal of the myth while fusing it to material that is at once autobiographical and outward looking.
It’s the second time I’ve seen the show and the same moments knock the breath out of me all over again. They all have to do, I realise, not with design or words or even fully articulable ideas, but with just these two performing bodies. There’s a sequence in which McMaster struggles again and again to escape from Anderson’s half-embracing, half-smothering grasp, straining out of his arms over and over, all underscored by the devastating soundtrack of Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby”. Both men are naked by now – a nakedness that feels as gentle and generous as it is exposing – and their bare skin is lightly coated in the ash that clouds the air. Death hangs on them, yet they are so so alive.
Later, in one of the most powerfully simple gestures I’ve seen on a stage, the two men fall repeatedly into one another, stepping gradually further and further apart as they do so. Shoulder smacks into chest; arms grip arms. You can almost see the bruises blossoming in real time. There’s such trust in it, a trust and cooperation tinged at the same time with pain and a kind of heavy, unspoken grief. Each time their bodies slam into one another, it’s all I can do not to gasp with the bruising beauty of it. Bodies, at once sturdy and fragile, embracing, catching, supporting one another.
To talk about embodiment is often to be misleading. We aren’t brains in jars, we’re blood and muscle and sinew, and so everything is embodied – from sitting and reading a book to me typing these words, the smooth surface of the keys sliding under my fingertips. Still, there’s something about live performance that almost imperceptibly changes how we see and understand both the bodies on stage and, perhaps, our own, whether in our seats or up on our feet. And time and again, as at Forest Fringe, I find myself surprised.
Main photo: Jemima Yong.