Katherina Radeva: I love Pulse. We’ve been before, as artists, but never before as simply audience members. It’s really different: the anticipation that follows the announcement of a cracking line-up, the scheduling of a whole week around other people’s shows. When we arrived, I was wowed by the DanceEast building, where I’d never been, and the opportunities that structure makes available to dance artists in the east. And we began with a company well-known to me, Lost Dog, with whom I worked years ago, in an evening of watching dance.
Alister Lownie: I’ve been interested in how much work there is about watching, about what we’re doing in the theatre as audience and performers, and how that relates to the world outside. It’s there in Lost Dog’s Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me), which was a lengthy retelling of Milton’s story through a visual, physical theatre. A white middle-class performer (Ben Duke), running his own dance company, unapologetically casts himself as God, and Adam, and Lucifer, and Eve – as the whole cast of this classic of the western canon and as the maker of this work – its own God. There’s something uncomfortable about that, but also something knowing, recognising the problem – the publicity image shows him carrying a cardboard sign that says ‘I am God’. It was a piece that spoke to me of a struggle with what dance is, the movement in it confined to natural gesture, exaggerated gesture and only ‘dance’ in brief bursts of inarticulacy among its torrent of words. I found it questioning how to make work in this empty space of “infinite potential.”
KR: Ben walks on with a chair, and an open book. He sits down, and his charming presence immediately relaxes us as he begins to tackle the weight of Paradise Lost. Where to start? Going back, I want to pick up on something – the irregular white circle on the floor, reminds me of Lost Dog’s We Need Horses, and the beautiful simplicity of that piece, which colours my expectation. He’s got a second entrance, too: descending from a rope. It’s that question of where to begin. As he ages, Ben gets better as a performer for me – I feel I can see his experience of being a dad and carrying the stones of fatherhood, and continuously making work. Biblical. Epic. Ambitious. Very human. A bit long for me.
AL: Looking, watching, was there again in War is Boring/War is Fun, Greyscale’s attempt to work with an actor unfamiliar with a text – in this instance, the director’s own teenage diary, a story of growing up in war-torn Yugoslavia. On stage, she listens, watching him read, watching us watching them both. It’s unfinished, but there was something intriguing about her uncomfortable, dissatisfied, presence and her distance from that former self. It was there in STAND, beautifully acted and encompassing such a range of stories about political commitment, but making us wonder what our role, as audience sitting watching this, ought to be. Why do we buy tickets and sit quietly, obediently, listening to the things we believe in on stage — why is that an evening well-spent when we could be out there doing something?
KR: Well, we are doing something, by going to the theatre. That is an act of doing. Me being there was important. To me. Important for me in how I receive stimulus in my life, through live theatricality in front of me. It’s an addictive kind of demand. The more good work you see, the more you seek. A bit like a sportsman wanting to perform better. And it’s important to note, again, that as artists we strive to make good work, work that is of interest, important work. And so the work of going to the theatre is active. It is taking a stand for what I believe in.
War Is Boring/War is Fun really reminded me of my identity as a Bulgarian in the UK. Of my identity growing up as a child between political regimes. It asked questions of what we once were and are now, how we want to be united and yet we separate. Then in Yugoslavia, and now in the UK. While its form didn’t seem comfortable for me watching it, I was left with an interesting internal conversation about identity and belonging and an in-between-state, just as the girl it revolves around was in-between in those months of war. And the political notions link to STAND, to what we believe in, making our voice heard. We can be silent as spectators and yet we’ve come together in numbers and can be heard. Particularly this year, Pulse feels like it’s important to the local community – that they’ve invested in their cultural landscape was obvious. Our conversations with audience members who recognised us before and after shows, absolutely demonstrate that the role of attending, listening, is one of the loudest messages we can send. As artists, people come and see it. They want it. The audiences are bigger this year: it’s not a passive role, but a dialogue between the artists on stage and the audience who wish to come.
AL: Looking was there again in Be Better, which shared with Show Off a fascination with the image, the body, the self we put out on public display, especially through social media. Most hauntingly, it was there in The Ted Bundy Project. Greg Wohead’s piece starts as a light, friendly touch, which lingers and then shifts to places you don’t want it, but you don’t want to tell this charming young man to stop, please, stop. He plays so assuredly with his audience, the same charm which relaxes us being used to disarm and provide half-explanations that hint only at our complicity in the more extreme versions of watching which the show compels us to watch in turn, like ushers in a cinema, monitoring an audience gorge on graphic violence. And all the while, our imaginations in overdrive, he’s drawing attention to the difference between “what we know” and “what we don’t know”, but it’s not so simple as a line between fact and speculation. Who can we trust?
KR: I struggled with Be Better’s fixation on body image, because I am, I guess, that bit older and the pressures I feel are not really about image. But we do get sold ‘better’ every day – better juice, trousers, training. We’re expected to get better jobs and with them, better clothes and phones and houses. So my experience of Be Better sidelined the body in favour of capitalist society leading to one “better” disguised as individualism. There was another strong body image though, Fat Man, that completely disarmed me. A love story, for me, a story of love, of a man in love, falling in love and losing a loved one. The execution of that performance means I am rather in love with him, and I rather like his belly. And his drinking habit. Since when has eating doughnuts on stage been so sexy? And it’s in that experience, being in the palm of a great performer who moulds my experience of being there with him – that makes me feel better.
AL: Yes, it’s satisfying to be in Fat Man’s expert hands, even when they’re playing you, showing you how mawkish your watching may be. That reminds me of Hardy Animal, Laura Dannequin’s examination of pain, which brings our focus down to the tiniest movements of the muscles in her naked back, aligning our gaze with the medical (and pseudo-medical) examinations she describes, a show which ends with hope, a more dangerous dance which has us fearing that our desire for her to move for us has pushed her across the boundaries of pain, might result in yet more injury. And audience expectation was important in Igor and Moreno’s Idiot-Syncrasy too. Their hour-long show only occasionally breaks into the recognisable gestures of contemporary dance, but they play with rhythm and space, with a kind of harmony and unison through the simple device of a jump. A repeated jump in which they find infinite variety. At moments it seems like they are ‘just’ playing with each other and with us, before the piece tugs us back into recognising its clever choreography.
KR: I watch Can I Start Again Please and barely take a breath. Of all the pieces we’ve seen this week, the tight choreography of every breath, every move of their paper, the cloth on the floor: I’m with them, from beginning to end. That piece is about interpretation, what we see and what we read, knowledge and visual information, what places the contexts around our world. That tight study of language and interpretation leaves me completely inspired.
AL: Yes. Language was the other major theme in my week, most of all in Sue MacLaine’s new Can I Start Again Please. Two women sit next to one another, a long scroll folded between them, its ends running across their laps. Beside and between them, piles of books, each topped by a bell. They wear matching dresses which pool on the floor in front, the colours of each inverted on the other. The scroll is their script, a written text which they will both render: Sue MacLaine offers fluent spoken English, and her gestures occasionally break into British Sign Language; her performance partner Nadia Nadarajah offers fluent BSL, and her breath occasionally breaks into the sounds of spoken language too. It is an intellectually stimulating piece, unashamed of its learning as it takes Wittgenstein as a starting point, but able to play wittily with its knowledge. There is anger and pain, a distress which it takes time to unpick: the pair play with speaking and not speaking, with how meaning is created, with context and its importance. They are working around something, avoiding dealing with it head-on. Outside their text lies something whereof they cannot speak – or should not, must not, are unable to. The something is a childhood trauma, an abuse which may be sexual, but the programme notes suggest is related to forcing speech on deaf children, and the way that teachers lay their hands on children to train their sounds. Almost throughout, the pair are unnervingly calm.
KR: A piece about meaning, translation, quotes, trauma, silence, quietness. A piece that just makes you feel human. It’s very calm when you take it in, nice and slowly, because they leave space for interpretation, how we interpret things (words, meanings). The script is there, like a scroll of knowledge. A beautiful piece of work.
AL: The absence of meaning in Idiot-Syncrasy evoked a kind of communion of bodies in space, something which required no words. Whereas Spitz & Co’s Glorilla piled words on words in a game that seemed constantly on the edge of nonsense. The duo (Pauline Morel and Susie Donkin) clown physically and linguistically, melding Tarzan and Gorillas In The Mist as they make claims for the heroine’s ability to speak with animals (maybe even plants) in a fantastical tale of love in the jungle. They play with time, with their pants, with simplistic set and our willing disbelief, so adroitly that even committed coulrophobes can relax and let themselves indulge the extraordinary egotism of fictional actress Gloria Delaneuf’s so-called lecture.
KR: For me, this was the biggest surprise in Pulse. I didn’t know their work, and I went along with all their nutty slapstick, the scenes they wanted to create. A very well-made piece that was fun, funny — I was happy. But it’s got enough serious stuff: the shampoo sponsorship that questions the relationship of money and the arts and is so well-integrated; the co-existence of gorillas and people. We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ during the show – because it’s started before it’s started, with the tour manager gathering our signatures on a birthday card in the lobby. A little show of immense madness.
AL: I remember speaking with Paul Warwick from China Plate, who program the festival with the New Wolsey, and he said that 25% of the audience at the opening show had never been to the New Wolsey before – Pulse is not just a sub-section of the theatre’s normal audience, but something that attracts people to theatre. And at each show, he’s there, telling people to come and talk to him – “the sommelier of the festival”, he says, who can guide choices. And it’s true, when you watch, that the audiences do chat with the staff, they do want to know a bit more about what they’ve seen and talk about it and then find out what else might suit them.
KR: The relationship between the rep theatre and the guys at China Plate as curators is really successful. If we’re talking about audience development, you’ve got to be in it for the long run, and the New Wolsey has done just that with this festival. The last few years have really let it take off.
AL: We saw so many of the same people at different shows – and they weren’t industry people, they were locals who wanted to try some new work. Sometimes they were people who remembered our shows from last year or the year before, sometimes they were complete strangers. Some of them were young, some were quite elderly – it was a really good mix. It doesn’t feel like any other festival I’ve been to.
KR: A wonderful Pulse experience, for me, was being let into the working processes of Fingersmiths. While I didn’t really follow the story of War Crimes For The Home, I was focused on the relationship between the director working in two languages for the performers, English and BSL, in their rehearsal process. A dynamic of constant translation and interpretation. Communication within the cast, with the director, for this bilingual company.
AL: Their commitment to seeing two parallel versions of something on stage – neither English nor BSL leading, but different versions, different experiences, of the same thing – that pricked me. It was a very strong artistic vision of how difference can be present and de-problematised.
KR: Ramps on the Moon was a two-hour presentation and discussion around disability and inclusion. The New Wolsey is an exemplary theatre, committed to making their work accessible to wider audiences, to working with artists and staff with disabilities. “We want to smash the disability bubble,” said chief executive Sarah Holmes.
AL: Simon Startin gave good provocation. He spoke of being a “whore of otherness” and challenged everyone to think about why and how they’re working with disabilities. At the same time, he was keen to point out that “there are no non-disabled people, just not disabled yet.” The importance of dissolving boundaries between disabled and non-disabled, of working with (against? through?) difference, seems to be so well-embedded in some institutions, and so far down the agenda of others. Giving these issues a whole day was important – and the presence of some bigger industry figures at the debate was also important.
KR: Yes. Something else he said summed up the week: “Art is a question. It asks, we pay attention.”
Main image: Sue MacLain’s Can I Start Again Please – Photo: Zoe Manders