Recently, I was introduced to the concept of chaos magic, which was developed in England in the 1970s. Chaos magicians are the anarchists of the occult world. They do not believe in the innate power of symbols, rituals or runes. Stonehenge is not in itself a holy site, and its leylines could run through a sewer system; tarot cards hold no more prescient power than the back of a packet of cereal. The core of a chaos magician’s power is their own belief. As they consider reality, and therefore the concept of magic, neither objective nor fixed, they suggest that the only way to perform magic is to test techniques, borrow possibilities, examine results, and ascribe ‘magic’ to whatever seems to work.
Chaos magic can feel like a powerful rejection of rigid structures that prioritised symbolism and ceremony over rigorous examination of the self in the conceptual; it can also feel like a magpie’s nest of borrowed techniques and surface-level aesthetics, wherein the rite is so far removed from broader frameworks that it feels completely insular. Stefan Jovanović’s Constellations sets out with the intention of doing the former, but unfortunately its execution falls in to the latter camp.
Constellations has been programmed as part of the Wild Card initiative at the Lilian Baylis Studio, which puts on curated evenings of genre-blurring performance from a new generation of dance makers. Jovanović’s work has always experimented with the experiential: he has created ‘temporary social and dining experiences’ for Pret a Diner and collaborated with artist Peter Macapia in making a series of scores that map Manhattan and its geopolitical tensions. Constellations itself is interactive, and the audience – seated in a square around the stage – are asked to waltz by the performers, are encouraged to play with the remarkable kinetic metal sculptures (‘rocking wotsits’) by Jack Hardy, and are even invited to touch the pots, paintings, costumes and masks that populate the piece during the interval, which Jovanović describes as the ‘Fool’s Market’.
Indeed, there is a Foolish element to the entire piece – not foolish, but drawing on the archetype of the Fool, the Pierrot, the Lord of Misrule. Most of the performers, regardless of their gender, wear chalk-white face paint, painted over with exaggerated lips, eye-colours, shapes and blushes; their costumes, designed by Curtis Oland, evoke the loose jumpsuit shape of the circus clown while playing with fastenings, drapes and cutaways; on every pair of feet are brightly coloured high heels. Gender signifiers are festooned and lampooned, underlining the essential costume nature of binary gender.
But despite this gender anarchism, Constellations is bizarrely low energy. The introductory interactive waltzes are awkward and nervous, and the performers have to adapt to shyness. Once the audience are all seated again, Moon the whippet makes an appearance, which charms a lot of audience members but unfortunately for me – a cat person who would quite like prior warning if a large animal I’m not keen on is likely to be racing around a space I’m sharing with it – this reads like a strange exercise in buttering up the audience with cuteness.
If the presence of Moon is not a form of adorable bribery, then its unclear what purpose it serves. Unfortunately, this lack of purpose permeates the piece, which is disjointed and incoherent, though not without impressive individual performances. One dancer teaches three others how to strut in heels, but the dynamic is stressful and oddly chiding. A performer wearing one of Damselfrau’s imaginative masks spins and wheels a rack of shirts while striding and twirling her wrists with flamenco elegance; it’s unclear why she has a rack of shirts and she looks like she’s been let loose in a department store. Roni Katz, the standout performer of the evening, whose grandiose backbends and powerful prima donna energy make for compelling watching, mimes to a mixed soundtrack of opera, pop and rap. Does this sound confusing? It is.
What’s happening? What are we experiencing? What’s the narrative? What’s the meaning? What are we supposed to be feeling? Even the performers don’t seem to know, addressing each other in unscripted asides that should probably feel authentic, responding as they do to the moment and not rigid choreography, but instead feel tetchy, unplanned, shambling. The energy here is not the creation of a magnificent new ritual; it is the energy of a group of people who are trying to make a PowerPoint presentation work, bickering and anxious, each uncertain who was supposed to be responsible for making sure laptop was connected to the projector.
I wish I could feel more warmly about Constellations. It is important to smash paradigms, to interrogate gender, to collaborate, to cross mediums, to prioritise meaningful audience engagement with art. Ambitious work that dares stray from conventions of theatre making – particularly scripting or linear narratives – should be praised and encouraged. But sometimes the chaos magic cast comes off as tomfoolery with added incense.
Constellations is on at the Lilian Bayliss Studio till 8th June. More info here.