Reviews BirminghamNational Published 11 June 2021

Review: Always Already at Birmingham International Dance Festival (online)

3 June

‘It requires work’: Andrew Edwards writes on Karen Christopher and Tara Fatehi Irani’s rewardingly dense durational performance.

Andrew Edwards
Karen Christopher and Tara Fatehi Irani in Always Already. Photo: Jemima Yong.

Karen Christopher and Tara Fatehi Irani in Always Already. Photo: Jemima Yong.

“We are what is growing and what is making and being made, we are the plants, we are the machine. We are working the length of an average work day.”

Always Already is a performance installation, and was livestreamed from Dance4 in Nottingham as part of Birmingham International Dance Festival. This performance lasted eight hours in total — the length of an average working day — beginning at 11am and building towards what is described as an ‘embedded performance’ between the hours of 5pm and 6pm. Accompanying the performance is a reading companion entitled Paper leaves and other constructions, which contains essays, drawings and reflections, created by others, as well as by themselves.

Broadly speaking, Always Already is about ecology, the possible hybrid relationships between plant, human and machine, as well as the histories and legacies of both weaving and women’s labour. In the room, there are materials — a wooden beam, wool, a pair of lungs, chairs, paper leaves, two women; there are movements — a raised arm pulling thread from the sky, an arm cast across the body, the percussion of gently stamping feet, the lifted steps of a tap routine; there are sounds — recorded text, spoken text, song, breath, industry, what sounds like binary, screams of machines. There’s a lot going on, albeit quite slowly. At first, I entirely bounced off of Always Already – didn’t get it, didn’t want to get it, thought it was stupid, closed the laptop and went outside. Yet through repetition, through returning, through re-reading — through the obligation of having to write this review because I promised I would — my experience of the work grew, and grew, and grew.

Always Already feels big. I don’t think I could wrap my arms around it and cover all of its surfaces. That’s perhaps a quality that all durational work shares — or any piece of work, if you spend long enough with it. Nevertheless, there is a particular quality to this work that is always gesturing towards something that isn’t visible. The choreography is a series of abstracted movements, described in the reading companion as being borrowed from ‘carpet weavers, spinners, darayi weavers, factory workers, assembly lines, operators of heavy machinery, tweed makers, lace makers.’ These movements are then slowly repeated and any variations, when they do emerge, are slight. It takes some time — and will test your patience — but the experience of watching these patterns, noticing changes, drifting away and coming back, is tremendously satisfying. I once made a comparative piece of work with the artist and choreographer Paul Hughes about similar themes, albeit with significantly less depth. Back then, we used to bang on about dramaturgies of accumulation — we were in our mid-20s, forgive us — which shifted dramaturgical agency from performers to audiences, who imbued the work with their own meaning. I believe something similar is at play here. Always Already offers a fractal smattering of movements. What shape they take, and what they mean, depends on how you stitch them back together.

The work’s text is divided across the reading companion and the performance, where it is spoken, sung and played through speakers. Much like the movements, these texts come to us as fragments – short and gestural to something unsaid, unwritable. The writing is highly memorable, as good poetry often is. Bits of it have stuck to me but I’m not sure why. Two moments in particular stand out — the first is a monologue from Christopher, lying across two chairs, who sing-speaks a story of a dandelion growing out of her ear. It is unclear whether Christopher is a person, or the earth itself. It is absurd, in content and delivery, but I found it deeply affecting as she speaks with sadness and exhaustion, lamenting the repetitiveness of these weeds taking shape within her, of their endless scratching and twisting growth. The second is a piece of pre-recorded audio, about two people who both stop at the same tree, having never met, and witness all of its leaves falling at once. It’s short and fairly nothingy, but it speaks to the anxieties of environmental catastrophe that dominate our lives. Moreover, it quietly shatters our childlike notions of being ‘at one’ with nature, instead gesturing towards the idea that nature is something we cannot understand, cannot know or cannot control. Nature, ecology, the world — it’s pretty scary, as well as beautiful and great and so on.

Always Already carries itself with a quiet seriousness, reflecting a process of creation which has lasted many years. The depth of their research and collaboration is evident in every gesture and moment. While this rigour is distinctly impressive, the weight of their knowledge and practice can be overwhelming and difficult to sit with as an audience member — especially one who is watching the work from behind a laptop. Durational performance can be difficult to get into at the best of times. When you livestream it, I find this increases the difficulty tenfold. I think this is because it’s easier to switch to a different tab or to close the laptop than it is to leave a performance in person. Even the performance itself only occupies a 14-inch screen, from which I can easily look away. The difficulty of leaving a durational performance in person can be highly generative and conducive to a good time — it requires persistence, it requires work. Without this external pressure to stay, I found myself gravitating towards the moments in Always Already which disrupted their intensity. I remember smiles, arched eyebrows, quick words, fumbles and mistakes. What’s most generous about this work is that these moments were allowed, un-smoothed-over. For a brief moment I felt welcomed into the space. I felt the traces of warmth, of humour, of being with the shared present, of being there in person.

Always Already played at Birmingham International Dance Festival on 3rd June. The hour-long embedded performance can be watched on demand until 13th June. More info here.

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Andrew Edwards is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Always Already at Birmingham International Dance Festival (online) Show Info


Directed by Karen Christopher and Tara Fatehi Irani

Cast includes Karen Christopher and Tara Fatehi Irani

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