Wild Card is a new initiative from Sadler’s Wells whereby emerging artists are invited to present their own work at the theatre but also have the opportunity to invite other artists to perform on the same evening. (You can read more about this project in Bojana Jankovic’s article here, which contains interviews with both artists and producers).
It’s difficult to know how to describe the project without using terms that have perhaps lost some of their resonance through overuse in arts writing but I do think it is worth emphasising how rarely a producing theatre hand over the curatorial reins to artists, particularly artists who are still establishing themselves. It demonstrates an understanding of the artistic process as something embedded in communities and networks of influence and mutual support. It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent theatrical argument for that process than this evening curated by Dan Canham.
While it might not be surprising to see avant-garde work in the Lilian Baylis space, the appearance of the the Pig Dyke Molly Dancers in the minimalist, slightly austere café area felt like something I wasn’t prepared for in any way. This may have something to do with their appearance: with their long black wigs and black and white outfits and face paint, they look a bit like the esoteric new project from the former members of KISS.
It’s folk-dancing but not as you have ever seen it before. The repartee in between songs is boisterous, direct. Those wavering at the entrance are encouraged to enter the room and sit themselves down on the floor. Puppets weave amid the audience, eating one woman’s crisps. There’s accessibility and involvement at every step of the way: not as an intellectual position necessarily but because this is something that is demanded by the environments in which the troupe normally perform: pubs, Stilton rolling and Straw Bear festivals. Their presence at Sadler’s Wells subtly asks questions about the norms of the usual performer-audience relationships on display at the venue. The Molly Dancers aren’t asking those questions though; they are just being themselves, doing what they do and it’s gratifying to see the audience, tentative at first, warm to them. By the end, everyone is joining in and an anarchic carnivalesque atmosphere has been established.
Once we enter the actual auditorium, the next part of the evening feels like it couldn’t more different, at least at first. Augusto Corrieri comes on stage and delivers a performance-lecture, with illustrative slides. It’s an intriguing, almost Borgesian narrative that turns in on itself: an account of Corrieri’s visit to the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza during which he saw a swallow who apparently lived inside the theatre. There’s something about the idea of an animal, a force totally outside our control, existing within a space where everything is designed, constructed, performed with clear intention that stands as a point of connection between Corrieri’s own, highly measured and controlled performance and the otherworldly anarchy of the Pig Dyke Molly Dancers.
In Place of a Show also clearly stems from a fascination with empty theatre spaces and this is something it shares with Canham’s own 30 Cecil Street: an attempt to “make alive” the “spirit” of the Limerick Athenaeum, currently closed to the public, through sound, movement and LX tape.
In it, Canham pares down the elements of theatre to just what is essential for his purpose. He responds to recorded sounds through movement seamlessly, evoking so much by a gesture and contortion. It’s too honest and visceral to come across as effortless but you do start to feel, watching him perform, that Canham has been doing nothing else but manically and obsessively preparing for this his whole life and, in this, it reminded me a little of Cillian Murphy’s powerhouse performance in Enda Walsh’s Misterman last year at the National Theatre. The experience is less one of storytelling and more of a guided exploration, portraiture, recreation. 30 Cecil Street concentrates on the space itself and the people who have visited and those who have tried to keep it alive. Their disembodied voices, whether heard in interviews with Canham or as distant chatter and hubbub, the roar of the crowd are like the ghosts of all the personal memories a performance venue secretes over the years. The Athenaeum is 150 years old and that’s a lot of collective memory for a twenty-five minute piece but Canham makes you feel that the building has come to life in the space for that short time, only to disappear again.
30 Cecil Street is worth travelling to see in its own right but, by seeing it in the context of other work chosen by Canham, you get a broader sense of where he is coming from as an artist: what preoccupies, obsesses and excites him. In addition to Corrieri and Pig Dyke Molly, there were short films being screened at the interval about eel catchers and step dancers: both investigating lost traditions that have fallen out of practice because of the value systems our society judges them by. In collecting these artworks together and juxtaposing them throughout the course of an evening, Canham seems to be gently inviting us to re-engage and reconsider our relationship with both work and play and, in its own thoughtful, quiet way, that’s as radical a political gesture as any you’re likely to see at the theatre all year.