Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 30 January 2020

Review: Lite Metle; fire bird at the Yard

28th Jan - 1st February

‘Blood drips across the century but the vein still binds’: Maddy Costa writes on double bill of searing performances by Ultimate Dancer and Julie Cunningham, part of NOW 20.

Maddy Costa
Ultimate Dancer and Julie Cunningham at the Yard.

Ultimate Dancer and Julie Cunningham at the Yard.

Forests are burning, the world is on fire, and we’re sitting in a theatre as if none of this matters.

The red cords strung across the stage might be a cat’s cradle stretching the hands of a child. Julie Cunningham’s body ducks and weaves between and through the lines, struts and pecks beneath and over them, stretches and tugs the length of them. Decorating the edges of Cunningham’s body are flame-red feathery tufts; the music propelling their movements is Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird: a fairy tale creature that glows with its own unquenchable light. Suddenly a projected image appears on the back wall, of artist/musician JD Samson (beloved third of Le Tigre), eating an apple and mutter-murmuring along with the melody. The playfulness is exquisite.

Or the red cords might be a snare. Arms drawn back, shoulder blades scrunched, Cunningham bats truncated wings, effective as a chicken’s. Curling their arms to the front of their body they scrub at their breasts, perhaps to grow them, perhaps to erase them. Now and then their body snags, caught in the web of the cords, searching for how to break free. But they do and their body looms larger and larger, seizing power from the music, from the promise of the other firebird: the phoenix who is perpetually reborn from the embers of its own flames.

Or the red cords might be blood lines, connecting story and thought and art across time. Connecting modernism (then) with modern resistance (now), connecting the original bold ambition of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes with today’s dance artists attempting to disrupt the comfortable, conservative, traditional spaces in which The Firebird might be too easily caged, connecting the rejection of tutu and bun in 1910 with Cunningham’s refusal to pander to gendered conventions.

“Gender is a social construct. It doesn’t exist – it’s just a box. The body is unstable, constantly changing. This is me today.”

Forests are burning, the world is on fire, and we’re sitting in a theatre because these things matter.

Because politics are heavy, because theory is heavy, because money is heavy, because inequality is heavy, because despair is heavy, because bodies are heavy, because desire is heavy, Louise Ahl is here to make lite, bring light.

Stage left, a sheet dyed in lurid reds, oranges, browns: a Rorschach pattern that might be a firebird, or a devil, or a vulva (the building blocks of the spiritual world). Stage right, Ahl’s body split and remade by a square of polished mirror-sheen metal that slices them through the middle; wearing a black hoodie, strung with chain and keys, they look a little like a medieval monk, a little like ET out on an escapade: a timeless androgynous creature who speaks in the riddles of the Sphinx. “That which is solid will melt in your brain”; “You will find the answer by learning that the square is a circle in the shape of a triangle in the shape of a square”; “If you die in the forest without making a sound and no one is there to say goodbye, are you still alive?”

Like the Sphinx too their body is a thing against nature, folding beside and merging with the mirror-metal to transform fluidly from one misshapen creature to another. Legs stretch and torso disappears to become an eight-limbed headless beast; fingers double and flex as a wriggly termite. The metal is discarded in a storm rattle and Ahl moves across the back wall, holding awkward poses like the two-dimensional figures that decorate ancient Greek vases, or like the jolt-jerk dancers in crackling early film of Diaghilev performances. (The music is Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, choreographed by Nijinsky in 1912, which might have inspired Ahl’s movement here.) Presiding over this scene of ineffable mystery is another string of chain mail that hovers in shadow on the back wall, a gossamer ghost witch, casting silent spell.

Forests are burning, the world is on fire, and we’re sitting in a theatre transforming matter.

Human to animal, gender to myth, sprite to metal, image to truth, history to pulse, music to movement, despair to possibility.

There’s a version of the Firebird folk tale – not the one used by Diaghilev – in which the creature is just a regular bird that flies around giving hope to those who need it.

Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Nijinsky were working on the eve of a world war that inexorably led to another world war that inexorably led to a cold war and nuclear terror and the end of history or perhaps another way of phrasing this would be that Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Nijinsky were working in the dying days of the Ottoman empire which was fractured and portioned into factions still fissioning, or perhaps another way of phrasing this would be that Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Nijinsky were working at the beginning of a century in which empires imploded yet colonisation remained intractable, or perhaps another way of phrasing this would be that Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Nijinsky were working between a failed revolution and a successful one that transmogrified into brutal dictatorship within which artists toed the party line or lost their lives, and if we’re going to look back over that century for evidence that humans have learned nothing and will insist on repeating their most violent and appalling mistakes we can also look back and say that the best of humanity – its works of art – have against everything survived. Not just survived as relics or fossils or hollow immutable shells: survived in molten state, survived as clay, to be claimed and remodelled and re-formed and cast anew. Blood drips across the century but the vein still binds.

Forests are burning, the world is on fire, and we’re sitting in a theatre because hope matters, because art matters, because these artists, in particular, matter.

Lite Metle and fire bird are at the Yard Theatre till 1st February, as part of NOW 20. More info here

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.

Review: Lite Metle; fire bird at the Yard Show Info


Written by Louise Ahl/Ultimate Dancer; Julie Cunningham

Cast includes Louise Ahl/Ultimate Dancer; Julie Cunningham, featuring JD Samson

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