‘Composing Performance’ – a practical workshop for Arts Week.

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

walkthewalk02Last term our MA group was based at Shakespeare’s Globe, and in a session on Tudor music workshop leader Keith McGowan explained that John Cage’s idea of silent music would have been old hat to the early moderns and the ancient Greeks. They took their cue from Pythagoras who had identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of string that produces it, and thereby understood that mathematical relationships will express ‘musical’ tones – whether you are able to hear the music or not. So it is that the movement of celestial bodies creates the music of the spheres, and Tudor dancers moving in proportion, to the Galliard or the Pavane, created their own harmonies.

Director Peader Kirk didn’t cite Pythagoras as an inspiration, but form, proportion and harmony were called for, and found singularly lacking when a group of us started to move around Room G10 at the Composing Performance workshop, run as part of Birkbeck Arts Week. Working barefoot, and in pairs, with one leading and the other ‘complicit’, we used the space of the room to walk, stand, sit or lie down. It may sound simple, but for us rookie performers it felt like an exercise in lumbering self-consciousness as we tried to avoid careering into each other, and wondered whether it was right to lock our gaze or to look away.

The aim of the workshop was to reveal how a compositional rather than a narrative approach can be used to create theatre. Peader was going to make a montage performance using us as his raw material, and he certainly had his work cut out. Ever so slowly we took on a broader repertoire of movements. We could vary our pace, and use proximity to move closer to, or further away from our partners. We could swap leader and follower, or even merge with another pair. This was definitely Grade One performance stuff, but the very simplicity of the approach, and the limitations, gave our movements a certain coherence.

Finally, starting from a very simple movement, we were ready to start composing.  A brave volunteer (well done Nick !) walked the breadth of the room. Paused. Turned. And walked back again. We watched as Nick repeated this walk and then each of us had to choose where or how to insert ourselves into the composition in such a way that added to and did not distract from the performance. Very slowly, and with a deal of trial and error, we found positions, and actions, which felt right – in some sort of Pythagorean way. With lights dimmed and to the soothing ambience of a Brian Eno track, Nick’s regular pacing took on additional meaning as each of us joined him in the performance and then, one by one, peeled away. Thankfully no visual record was kept of our debut, but we each found our own narrative in the piece and for a moment, even in G10, there was a sense that, with Peader’s help, we had created a moment of theatre.

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The Acts Between

This post was contributed by Éimear Doherty, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Arts and Policy Management.

‘The Acts Between is performance piece which aims to explore the themes of mental health and the passing of time’.

On the Arts Week programme page, it explained how ‘audience members can drop in and out at any time.’ However, on the ‘Events in the School’ it explained how The Acts Between was a ‘performance … which asks the audience to move around 43 Gordon Square. … The performance is around 20 minutes in duration – please book a time slot online.’

This left me a little confused. Unsure as to whether I was attending a performance or an installation; whether I was going to be a member of an audience or a viewer, I arrived at 18.00 (so as not to miss any important introductory explanations). With no information provided about the artists involved, I decided to be embrace the mystery of it and not research Between the Acts (the final novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1941 shortly after her suicide), as I would have normally been inclined. In hindsight, this might have been a sensible thing to do, however I am of the opinion that one should be able to attend a performance or exhibition without extensive preparation and still be able to participate.

Due to this unfamiliarity with the referenced novel, I entered G10 curious, with a kind of nervous excitement, which lent itself to the experience. Feeling as though I had stepped into the mind of an over active imagination, I did not know where to start first. Kevin Barry describes how he flits and hops from book to book, in the same way we flit and hop from site to site. I wish I did not identify with this behaviour, the curse of modern society and technology, but I know I am not alone. At first, my impatient mind was quite satisfied by the overlapping of Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Circus’. The problem with this amalgamation, alongside a loop featuring the sound of a crying baby and the infamous internet dial-up tone, is that I did not recognise the fire-alarm and thought the noise to be part of the show.

Sadly, this mass- exit and re-entry into No.43 by the audience was the only occasion when we did in fact move around the building. (Perhaps it really was all part of the piece?)

On return, I was ready to do some reading and found some Silvia Plath handwritten on dark rice paper, before moving on to a table filled with pamphlets on Bi-Polar disorder. Then I flitted off to a small table covered in diamonds and aspirin and listened to Marilyn Monroe sing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’… this was complemented by a nearby overturned chair, surrounded by bottled liquor, make-up and hairspray.

Curious, but it wasn’t long before I was hopping in and out between the shoe-strings, which presented punched photocopies of texts, checking out the small pebbles and bagged popcorn along the way.

The Acts BetweenFor me, the most intriguing aspect of the installation was the black and white video being played on the screen, left of the entrance. I did not watch it at first, too engrossed by the flickering pink projection been screened on the central wall. However, it was this monotone video that maintained my attention above the other stimuli.

The viewer was invited into no.43 and guided up and down the building’s labyrinth of corridors and stairs. What made this video eerie was the fact that the performers were outside room G10 throughout the performance/installation, so even exiting The Acts Between had a sense of the surreal to it.

The video eventually leads us into The Acts Between installation, so that we are left watching a view of the very room we are starting in. Up until that moment I felt unsure about the space as a whole but I think this moment brought it together for me. The idea of recording. Of never really being ‘present’, too distracted and concerned about experiencing moments behind a piece of technology.

I am not going to pretend that I now (or ever did) know how this all links to Virginia Woolf, her work and life in Bloomsbury. However, I will say that it made me consider even more carefully the veils through which we view our daily lives and what we use to alter our impression, and people’s impression of us. Time did move quite quickly while in The Acts Between, feeling as though someone had pressed fast-forward. Perhaps the idea was to create an environment where guests had the opportunity to gain a sense of what living with anxiety can feel like. Or perhaps this visitor did not read between the acts, objects, space and lines in way the artist’ had envisaged one to.

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The Body in Performance

Birkbeck Arts Week, 19 May 2014, Cinema 43 Gordon Square

This post was contributed by Lewis Wheeler, who completed a Foundation Degree Contemporary Dance Performance at Birkbeck in April 2014. Follow Lewis’ personal blog and Twitter

It comes as a surprise to many people I talk to that Birkbeck has a dance course at all, let alone a really exciting and unique course headed by a prestigious faculty, but thankfully it does. As Maria Koripas (Director of Dance at Birkbeck) explained in the opening session of The Body in Performance event, the pedagogical approach underpinning the course starts from the understanding that “the body is where we live, who we are and how we enter [and encounter] art” and therefore it is necessary to train “with a 360 degree perspective, the whole person, not just the technical body”. Whereas in some dance schools the ultimate aim is to get the leg higher in the air, at Birkbeck there is the training to get the leg up there but just as importantly to understand why it’s in the air at all, what is the meaning of this and why would we want to do it in the context of a performance?

Maria explained that it is an exciting time for the course as, although a dance course in various forms has existed at the college for 17 years, October 2014 sees the launch of the BA(hons) Contemporary Dance as Creative Practice degree, which will be the first part-time, evening-taught, BA(hons) degree in Contemporary Dance in the UK and having completed the Foundation Degree in Contemporary Dance (the precursor to the new BA) I can personally vouch for the intellectual, artistic and technical challenges and opportunities the course offers its diverse student cohort.

In the second session of the evening Nobuko Anan (Lecturer in Performance & Contemporary Japanese Theatre at Birkbeck) presented an insightful overview of the history of Butoh dance (which started in Japan although proponents of which are now found worldwide). I was surprised that Butoh is a relatively young art form (history isn’t my strong point), it emerged through the ‘50s and ‘60s and early practitioners were heavily influenced by German Expressionism. In the past I have found it challenging to watch Butoh performances as they can seem relatively slow and ‘patience demanding’ in comparison to the dance theatre I’m familiar with in the UK. However, Nobuko’s explanation of how a central tenet of Butoh is to access the “social psyche” and reveal aspects of humanity that are/have been suppressed within society interested me. Frequent themes that arise from this approach include revealing people’s violent urges, erotic/homoerotic desire (at this point my interest piqued) and due to the dancers generally being nearly naked, painted white and moving in a distorted, highly controlled and “grotesque” (Noboku’s word) manner Butoh is widely known as “the dance of death”; certainly sounds better than watching so-called ‘reality’ television to me.

Scene from 'Athletes' by Riccardo Buscarini

Scene from ‘Athletes’ by Riccardo Buscarini

The final session of the evening was led by Riccardo Buscarini (Choreography and Performance Lecturer at Birkbeck and Place Prize winner 2013) who led a very engaging session sharing elements of his creative process as a choreographer and also screened a film of his Place Prize winning choreography Athletes, an exquisite Hitchcock-esque exploration of the contrasts between destroying something to build something new. Riccardo led the second year choreography module during my Foundation Degree and has had a very strong influence on my own ideas and burgeoning practice. One of the main ways he conceptualises an artwork (be that a dance or film etc) is that it is a “personal perspective put in the world by the artist” and that his way of approaching choreography (or indeed any creative practice) is that “the artist is putting forward a thesis which they will analyse and question through the creative process”.

This approach, in-fact, underpins the whole of the dance course at Birkbeck in that dance is engaged with critically through the body. One of the first modules is called ‘Embodied Critical Thinking’, which means that the body is the site where learning occurs, ideas are imagined and thought-through or ‘criticised’ and also subsequently communicated.

The Body in Performance was a highly stimulating evening that reflected the quality, insightfulness and diversity of the engaging programmes of study in performance that Birkbeck has to offer.

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Theatre Scratch Night—sharing of new student work

This post was contributes by Jennifer Wilson, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Text and Performance.

Birkbeck’s yearly Arts Week brought both staff and students together to watch the presenting of new work devised, written, and acted by students of Birkbeck College. This event was to celebrate the opening of a theatre space, Room G10, which was previously used solely for the purpose of lectures, classes, and workshops. The night opened with a piece by four students from the MA Text and Performance programme. Using Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling, the group intertwined spoken words by Fred and Rose West, two notorious British serial killers. The second part of the evening’s performance showcased 10 excerpts of new plays written by Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing students. The pieces presented were directed and performed by Birkbeck’s own MFA Theatre Directing students. After the final performance, the night ended with drinks, snacks, and lovely conversations amongst everyone; an official “kick off party” for the new theatre space. The future of theatre lies in the hands of the current generation of students and their voice were able to be heard in each performance. A round of applause goes out to everyone involved in Theatre Scratch night. A job well done!

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