We often look to our art to ‘say something’. Sometimes this can amount to grasping at the thread of a theme in a work otherwise dominated by a fulsome aesthetic; sometimes it can be a demand of the artist to provide moral guidance above emotional reflection. Take, for example, ‘Cat Person’, a short story by Kristen Roupenian, published by the NewYorker. A witty work of fiction detailing a young woman’s flirtation and eventual sexual encounter with an older man, ‘Cat Person’ went viral in a way that short stories rarely do, and was scrutinised by an plethora of astute, thoughtful and angry online readers who variously celebrated and vilified it.
A surprising strand of the argument centred around a rather cruel observation from one of characters – that is to say, the argument reflected on the judgements of a fictional creation, and the way these judgements reflected on the overall quality of the story, and indeed on the beliefs of the author herself. What, then, is the purpose of art? Does an artist need to declare their beliefs in their work? Does a line need to be drawn from creator to creation?
For tonight’s opening piece, the answer is ‘No’, and its subject matter makes this an exciting challenge. RÃ³isÃn O’Brien’s piece Some People Say is, at its centre, about President Trump. There is no way to say this without a certain charge filling the air; indeed, part of silo portem’s soundscape for the piece includes remixed and distorted selections of Trump’s speeches, and a woman in front of me vehemently whispered, “Yuck,” as soon as she heard his voice. Some People Say is about a man who, I hope we can all agree, is a scourge and a danger to the entire world.
Yet O’Brien’s piece is remarkable for its lack of anger – for its lack of moral judgement or guidance, for the obscuring of its creator’s own beliefs. The two dancers on stage – Katie Armstrong and Christina Liddell – are dressed in oversized blazers, slim-fitting trousers and bare feet; they are not, in any way, caricatures of the monster at the helm across the pond. Armstrong and Liddell represent two versions of Trump: the bully, the racist and the misogynist, and the renegade hero who will make America great again. Neither is presented as better or worse than the other; indeed, as Armstrong and Liddell so often mirror or emulate one another, it isn’t even clear which version is which.
Some People Say is a piece ‘about’ Trump without bringing the appalling divisive presence of Trump onto the stage; instead, it is a piece that compellingly explores our relationship with the figureheads we elect, who hold power we have handed over to them, who are shaped, in our eyes, by the hyperlarge attributes we imbue them with.
It is important to note that the lack of directed, moralising anger in the piece does not amount to a lack of violence. O’Brien’s has the dancers’ upper bodies jerking and rolling behind dramatic, cartoonish, semaphoric arms and hands that appear possessed by a savage need to signal and be understood – a brilliant summary of Trump’s histrionic mode of address. Turns executed as a speed, sharpness and frequency that appears almost panic inducing, and thumping, powerful floorwork sections led by dragging, kicking legs suggest that the small human figures are roughly used marionettes for another force, both internal and external.
Some People Say is a frightening piece precisely because of the cool intelligence of its premise: it asks us to consider the systems and the viewpoints that created these unnervingly eloquent puppets, regardless of whether we dislike them or not. Boldly complex in its movement language and confident in its execution, Some People Say is remarkable and disturbing.
More emotional fare is present in Body Politic’s Father Figurine, which sees Tobi Oduntan and Isaac Ouro-Gnao as a father-son pair who are coming to turns with the disappearance of the mother/wife figure in their lives. Oduntan and Ouro-Gnao are thrilling to watch when they move; Stephen Brown and Derek Mok’s choreography, grounded in the tight, rhythmically disciplined aesthetics of hip hop, nevertheless has distinct lyrical expressiveness, set to the surprisingly dreamy ‘The Breach’ by Dustin Tebbutt. Oduntan and Ouro-Gnao take one another’s weight and then flick it or shrug it off again in gorgeous symbiosis, their body language somewhere between yearning and aggression. The spoken word sections are rather less strong – as another audience member pointed out to me, they simply repeat what the dance was already expressing with perfect eloquence.
The final piece of the evening is Kaia Goodenough’s Reclaim the word slut!, a technically feminist piece that looks like the personification of a bullet journal gone wrong, all pastels and non-sequiturs. Three women in a smorgasbord of neo-tea dance outfits shout sentences like ‘spaghetti bolognese’ and ‘make toilets gender neutral’ to seemingly no narrative purpose, miming corresponding movements. An undercooked visual language combined with a confusing lack of message leaves this piece collapsing like a bad soufflÃ©, though the energy of its three performers saves it from total disintegration, as they wring genuine humour and charm out of chaos. If you’re looking for pieces that ‘say something’, despite the literal saying of somethings, Reclaim the word slut! doesn’t succeed in saying very much at all.
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