DARREN JOHNSTON / RUSSELL MALIPHANT COMPANY / WENDY HOUSTON
Laban Theatre 21 February 2003
The spacious foyer area in the inspiring new Laban building has been likened to the Tate Gallery’s Turbine Hall, and in a similar fashion to the Turbine Hall Laban has chosen to use the space not only as a corridor and social area, but also as a vibrant programmable space. During the first week of programming for Laban’s new theatre it was encouraging to see support for the work of a relatively new choreographer in the foyer, alongside the highly established artists performing in the theatre. This provided audiences with a no-risk (free) opportunity to see new and experimental work and the artist with exposure to their work.
Darren Johnston’s audio/visual installation took place on a triptych of large screens on the wall of the library, which runs the length of a mezzanine floor above the level of the foyer. Images, including parallel lines, coloured shapes and a dancer (filmed in the studio and manipulated through technology) moved across all three, with the audience left to fill in the gaps between each screen.
In many ways Sector 4 was constructed in a classic computer game format, with each of the four levels (sectors) being clearly introduced and each appearing as a separate virtual realm. Other references included lemming-like multiple images of the performer moving involuntarily through the virtual space, and the use of a character who faces different challenges, explores different environments and takes on different forms in each of the ‘sectors’. It was pleasantly surprising to see this inclusion of character and a real exploration of play between performer, character and virtual images, rather than purely a manipulation of form and image in the work. At times the image or multiple images of the performer appeared to be confronting the audience, at others pleading to be released from the strange world in which she/they had become trapped, and at times the images became distorted or duplicated with the effect of lessening their humanness.
Distortions played an important part in the work - distortions of space, time and form. Movement also played a vital role, arguing the case for the work to be included under the umbrella of dance - movement of the (filmed) human body and movement done to the body by the technology, as well as movement of the pure lines and shapes.
Light and music both played vital roles in creating the space consuming effect of the installation. Strips of infrared and ultra violet light suggested associations with scanning – scanning the real to import to the virtual. Other than being loud the sound, created by Michael McNicholas, didn’t particularly stand out in the work, but this doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful. The sound created an ambiance, enveloped us and drew us into the virtual world.
Russell Maliphant’s duet Sheer explores a relationship filled with passion yet almost void of communication. The male and female dancers’ limbs continually cross paths, coming together only incidentally to suggest what once was or what might have been. The work does not appear to tell a linear story, yet seems fraught with emotion. Beautiful, tender, touching, it conjures feelings of loss and separation.
The lighting for the work is stunning, and provides a visually powerful introduction. A row of bright lights is hung at an unusual mid-level upstage. The piece opens with the light casting huge shadows of the dancers on the backdrop. The distorted effect of the dancers shadows brings them closer together, yet as the light turns to focus our attention on the dancers themselves we see that they are in fact some distance apart. Their distance is enhanced further, and tension introduced in the space between them, by the synchronisation of their movements so that, if brought into contact they would mould into each other’s bodies.
The light extends towards the front of the stage as a steep sided triangle. The couple stand at the point moving closer, almost touching, crossing limbs, just missing each other, as if they are either unaware the other is there or they just can’t communicate. When they eventually make contact, whilst the touch in their beautifully smooth contact work is tender, there is a still sense of distance between them.
The haunting sound track is permanently laced with the text: “She always wondered if he heard her”. Sometimes this is more audible, sometimes less, sometimes there are multiple overlapping voices and at other times one lone voice. This serves as a constant reminder of lost communication and also creates a sense of history for the relationship.
The couple might be inhabiting the same space in body but have lost something in their relationship, or – and this is subtly suggested through fragmented, hazy patches of light, which appear and disappear across the space, as well as the broken sound of a radio transmission – perhaps we should see only one person as present in body and dancing with the memory of a lost loved one?
In Wendy Houston’s solo The 48 Almost Love Lyrics Wendy is introduced as playing a female performer who is forced to confront ‘the mob’. The work depicts ‘a woman picking up movement and speech through the airwaves’ and ‘tracking down the meaning behind the message’. The work is a raw exploration of character, reality and performance codes, which keeps the audience, or ‘the mob’ as she refers to us, guessing. The work presents an interesting dialogue between subtitles, film, voiceover, music and movement.
Films appear in different formats and with seemingly random content on a big screen throughout the piece. Sometimes we’re watching a film directly and sometimes we’re watching an image, which includes the film being playing on a tv apparently abandoned outside somewhere.
One of the most successful sections was arguably the scene in which text appearing on the big screen is matched by a voice over, which in turn is matched by movements executed by Wendy – swing, gather, smooch, clench, skips, stop, soft, twist, hair loose, extends, walk, spin, swing, twist, enjoy etc. This process gets faster and faster until finally the instruction/action comes to end, only to begin again yet this time with Wendy speaking instead of the voiceover, telling and moving a story of a torso seducing legs, of body parts persuading each other, falling out and deciding to work together.
The piece continues with a number of disparate scenes. A concert section uses pop/rock music concert conventions – “good evening Deptford, let me hear you say…” - and Wendy introducing a ‘song’ which is then ‘sung’ by shouting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 25, 1000 etc whilst also moving and holding a 12” disc like a guitar. A “missing scene” involves Wendy sitting at a desk to describe a distinguished performer in disguise and the mob being confronted with something horrific. This serves as an introduction to Wendy donning a President Bush mask and holding a hammer whilst we hear from The Shining - “Wendy, darling, light of my life. I’m not going to hurt you…..”. This is a clever play on who is the character and who is the performer. Her movements also show the play between the victim role and the dominant character, which are also swapped around in the text. This scene is disturbing yet intriguing, a paradox that infiltrates the work as a whole.
The title for the work is referred to in one of the final scenes in which Wendy asks question after question whilst searching through a pile of 12” records. All of the questions are taken from music, and many, but by no means all, are from conventional loves songs. Does anyone know the way?….I haven’t stopped dancing yet……what becomes of the broken hearted?….aga do do do push pinapple…..is this real life or is it just fantasy……starry starry night….. All are spoken in a bland, conversational tone of voice, which affects their meaning, making what might be sad, amusing, what might be fun, sinister, what might be emotional, bland. This manipulation of meaning through transferring text, music or movement to a different context has often been successful in Wendy’s work in the past, and whilst it was successful to an extent in this work it wasn’t used as effectively.
Wendy gradually leaves the stage space as a moon appears on the film, accompanied by cheesy music. She dances a spinning, sweeping phrase as if just overtaken by the urge to move, as in a musical film, until the credits roll, bringing the piece to an end.
Whilst this strange pastiche of filmic techniques, popular music and exploration of dialogues between viewer, performer/actor, character, voiceover and image was not as strong as Wendy Houston’s previous work it was never the less intriguing. It is good to see this intelligent, witty, challenging artist back on the scene.