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Steve Brown at Cuckmere Haven (2008) Photo © Yseult Nash, all rights reserved

It was curiosity that initially led Steve into wandering into the Theatre Royal Brighton, and picking up work as a casual, without many qualifications from school, going on to perfecting the craft and becoming an internationally respected practitioner and advocate of it. He was over the moon when he eventually picked up an Honorary Degree from Rose Bruford.

For Steve, sound was a much broader thing – before all of that happened, in the early 80’s he’d been a drummer in a moderately successful band, ‘C-Saim’; he still had his drumsticks. He was fascinated by all aspects of sound, and his mind went much further than what was technically required by a theatre production – from which, as we know, he demanded technical perfection, each instrument as good as it could be, each element placed in exactly the right position – any set designer incapable of designing from an acoustic point of view for the Royal Exchange Theatre, would be the subject of a lively rant.  Even yesterday, the director Michael Buffong told me that to replace Steve for a forthcoming revival was unthinkable, such was Steve’s sensibilities in discovering and embodying the exact sounds in Michael’s imagination.

The opportunities brought by PQ03 of teaching in Europe & USA, involvement in OISTAT, and from 2007, by being variously project leader and curator at PQ and WSD, brought Steve the opportunity to keep questioning and developing his understanding and creative involvement in the function of sound – not only in theatre performance, but in other forms of sound art and ultimately in everyday life. Steve lapped up books on the theory and science of sound and music; the opportunities of the internet brought him unmediated contact with the international sound and music community, amongst whom he made countless friends; his audio diary – simple observations of life through sound, thousands of field recordings and compositional sketches, had a substantial following, literally receiving millions of hits. There’s another site, Radio Aporee, which uses Google Map to locate many of Steve’s field recordings.

Steve’s honesty, openness and warm enthusiasm had a knack of turning online conversations into proper friendships and solid commissions. The moment when a CD would arrive in the post from a musician from another country was a moment of pure delight. Steve was the member of many internet sound and music groups & communities.John Leonard says that to get up to date with what else was happening in the broader world of sound, he just had to go to Steve’s website. The fact that as an industry, sound in theatre considered itself separate from the rest of the sound and music world, was a frustration to Steve, appearing to him conservative. He was delighted by any commissions which came in for other types of sound projects. That one of his accolades is that he was an innovator in sound is well-deserved.

A testament to this was Steve’s programming for PQ11, which he used as much as a platform for others, as to teach himself, and he was very open about this. A highlight was the opportunity to programme talks from globally renowned and experimental practitioners (Scanner, Tod Machover, Hans Peter Kuhn) none of them theatre-based, but all having some kind of relation to performance which fascinated Steve. Steve’s programming for WSD13 continues to demonstrate his philosophy and others’ enthusiasm to come to Cardiff to work with him from as far as New Zealand. It’s by no accident that at PQ11, Steve had championed sound to the extent that a Special Award for Sound & Lighting Design was created and awarded to 2 sound designers within the UK exhibit – a triumph considering the fact that the UK curator had chosen not to include more extensive examples of sound design as Steve had been passionately advocating.

As someone who achieved so much and was self-taught, overcoming dyslexia, Steve was very particular about whom he trained up at the Royal Exchange – as he put it “I want to help the lads (who started off ) like me”; he was immensely proud of his team. He was absolutely a socialist, in favour of a level playing field and creative freedom. The conservatism of theatre, both in the sense of the industry tendency to keep the discipline of sound design discrete, and any professional cliques who got in the way of making work, was to be lampooned.

2011-2 in particular, were important years for Steve as he had come to a point where he was considering taking a huge step in his creative and professional life, and considering what that step would be. Offers, some very big – a professorship at Purdue University in Indiana – were starting to arrive. At the same time he was becoming ill and increasingly fatigued; Steve, a workaholic anyway, was working to capacity and travelling constantly (‘always somewhere’, as his tagline had it), whether to other countries either to teach or explore what the next step might be, or between his pied à terre apartments in Manchester and Brighton. I was left in no doubt that the next chapter of Steven Brown was to have been a very exciting one. He told me he was offered his ‘dream job’  for theatre in 2013.

What else can I tell you? Stories about being tipped to be a professional footballer when he was a boy, his frustration in that not happening, a love of foreign language films, Paris & Barcelona, a pride in his Breton family roots, an enduring love affair with the sea, not a great lover of domestic life, but loved by a great many people with a set of wonderful friends in Brighton who were to care for him in the final months, a robust Scrabble addict, lately a fan of Owen Jones, a life long Spurs fan, a lover of dogs, and in particular, puppies, and not least and last of all, my dog Reg. The sound of Reg eating breadsticks at his bedside a few weeks ago was one of the last field recordings Steve made.

I came to know Steve because I was commissioning sound pieces from a range of artists from different fields in music for my Listening Shell project and I was looking for someone in theatre. The designer Kate Burnett recommended Steve; we hit it off so well that the eventual piece “Lost At Sea” became a love poem in sound. Long after the demands of life had pulled us once again in our individual directions, Steve remained my confidant and ally, and vice-versa, in both life and work.

He had a huge effect on the course of my own life. Twice when I was making huge changes in it, an embodiment and confidence of a creative idealism embraced by our relationship, was something for which I could mentally leave the solidity of the thing that wasn’t working, and walk towards. To some extent it took the support of a colleague like Steve to give me the confidence to eventually walk away from the structures of theatre I was working within. When Steve told me he was going to be the Sound Commissioner in Prague, I was determined to go too. At PQ11, Steve literally put me on a platform along with other sound practitioners, and gave me a credence, a connection with other artists, who similarly encouraged me to pursue my own path. For me, it ultimately led to a complete immersion in art and a sense of theatre seen from art and not the other way around. There was a whole network of people drawn together by Steve, sharing a passion for life and art; many of us will be brought together once again by WSD13.

In 2011 Steve entrusted the rewriting of his CV to me.  Steve was always part of my personal map, and I always bore in mind where he was in the placing of myself in my continuing evolutions in life and as an artist. The final set of conversations were bringing us into closer orbit. If Plan A had to be abandoned through ill health, then there was most certainly going to be a Plan B, and Plan B was going to be pretty wonderful too. Certainly a new dog for Steve and also, according to sound artist Joseph Hyde, perhaps a centre for sound in Brighton.

For most of the time I knew Steve, I was also looking after people with serious illnesses, so in an unusual way, our friendship continued as normal, and we would play very challenging games of online scrabble throughout the dark hours of the night.  I’m fortunate that he left while we were in close orbit with each other; his signal faded far too early, but in the most beautiful way, surrounded by a huge amount of love which you heard clearly in his voice, a brightness and positivity for life. He remains one of my most dearest friends, his physical absence is the immense loss I wake up to daily.

With special thanks for Heather Cairncross.

PQ 2011 – Treading the Path of Risk (abridged for Blue Pages)


Kristen Delholm of Hotel Pro Forma, with ‘The Algebra of Place’

AT THE STILL POINT OF THE TURNING WORLD

During the heady days of this year’s Quadrennial, T.S. Eliot’s immortal words “still point of the turning world” were to be seen everywhere, from exhibition t-shirts to the lips of erudite guests.  Where is this ‘still point’? former Commissioner Arnold Aronson asked, for around us ideas were spinning from 60 nations, exposing meanings of scenography beyond the periphery of convenient comprehension. With the fire at Výstaviště and the need to relocate to several sites, PQ had at once blossomed into the city and become deliciously intangible:

“PQ cannot be easily described or understood – it is about learning, meeting and searching. PQ swallowed up all my original ideas and opened the doors” – Michaela Stránská, Scenofest Manager

During a vigorous panel discussion on PQ’s evolution, partly in regard to its new tagline of ‘Performance Design & Space’, Sodja Lotke, PQ Artistic Director, asserted that it was not about providing answers: “PQ is questioning contemporary scenography – exploring when and where it is and what shape it takes. Questioning things is not about doubting them: questioning creates possibilities to make things stronger. A dialogue with [other] disciplines that have scenographic elements creates possibilities for new views on our own practices.” 

While Lotke’s words speak to me of risk, my own answer to Aronson’s question is that each of us finds our own still point, that delicate and personal ‘hub’ where the world feels appropriate to us. The myriad of encounters that PQ throws up, falling like dice in unpredictable combinations, presents us with the opportunity to realign and reassess where our own centre lies.

THE AGE OF CURATORS


It was also the first time PQ had created a curatorial stance. Lotke’s Intersection project commissioned 30 installations from practitioners in a range of fields. This stance was also reflected in a series of talks involving international figures. Moreover, the majority of national exhibits themselves got the hint, and it became rapidly apparent that this year’s PQ was to be a creative view of the world – not restricted to theatre genres – as interpreted not only by theatre artists but by others, e.g. US composer and inventor Tod Machover and product designers Numen/For Use. This Vienna/Zagreb-based company have explored aspects of scenography as a flamboyant extension of their practice – and in doing so won Gold Medal for Best Set Design for a “clarity of vision that challenges stage directors to see their art in new ways”.

PQ had certainly moved its centre from pavilions towards exploration. At the RWCMD exhibition, scenographer Gudny Sigurdardottir told me her most influential experiences of PQ had been the talks, especially Hans Peter Kuhn’s (pictured with Lichterfeld F60), the Berlin-based artist whose path emerged working as a sound designer in theatre. He is known for past collaborations with Robert Wilson (e.g. HG for Artangel) and now for solo installations using sound and light.

2011 was indeed the year that sound made a big impact, from the appointment of Steven Brown as PQ’s first Sound Design Curator, to the first award given for Sound to UK’s Dan Jones and Kathrine Sandys.

The award to Sandys (pictured with Czech director and Juror, Viliam Dočolomanský) is significant. International recognition for her work, which uses resonance and vibrations rather than traditional composition, suggests that the UK theatre sound scene should similarly seek to redefine itself more expansively.

The debate continued how to represent sound design – some said it shouldn’t be attempted, others couldn’t wait to experiment. Sandys’ own exhibit consisted of little more than photographs, prose and a recording of low freqencies: our brains did the rest. Presenting work in new ways in a museum context does throw up problems of museology. It would seem that scenographers must master a related but different field in the presentation of their work. Lotke noted that when scenography is transposed to a new context, the dramaturgy must also evolve for the exhibit to work on its own terms.

TO BE BRAVE ENOUGH TO WANT THE RISK 

The concept of risk was on the lips of many of PQ’s guests. “I like that risk element“, said Robin Rimbaud (Scanner), a global travelling explorer of sound and image, fascinated by possibilities and encounters’, “I’m drawn to eccentric projects where I don’t know what I’m going to do”. Meanwhile a rapt audience gathered at the ‘Open Spatial Laboratory’ to hear Charles Renfro of NY architects Diller Scofidio & Renfro – who tease our perceptions of how we use space.  “We are not just interested in being provocative” he said,“but in making people upset”. An artist insistent on upsetting herself , is Kirsten Dehlholm, of  Hotel Pro Forma, Copenhagen. “Sometimes I need to be surprised – to put things that don’t obviously belong together. There are many meanings and audiences can find them.”

jesus_c_odd_size, was performed by real people chosen for their qualities appropriate to the biblical personae they represented. “The grandmothers of the disciples drank tea and told you stories about their disciple grandsons”, Dehlholm explained, “Virgin Mary – she has two rooms – one for men and one for women – when she goes she leaves a note – ‘back soon – Virgin Mary’.”  

WHY THE NEED TO TAKE RISKS?

Tod Machover,  Professor of Music & Media at the MIT Media Labobserved that most young people experience the world via computers. “We have to rebuild public experiences from the ground up and new reasons for people to come together. You can no longer assume that people will want to go to a normal theatre.” Machover’s descriptions of Hyperinstruments as well as his robotic opera Death and the Powers, demonstrate how technology can be used to extend and empower us as human beings. He uses physical movement picked up by sensors in order to control technological devices. If theatre is a machine, the outward expression of the human being, we should seek new models in step with the minds of our young people.

Italian director Romeo Castellucci finds other reasons to take risks and ways of finding that still point. “Communication is our daily disease – art is an interruption of this string of images and words. Theatre could be just a moment of thinking I want strongly to be lost – to be seen by the art, this is the biggest risk“. This recalled a Guardian article where he’d said “I need to be crushed … to reach the point where I don’t trust theatre or even myself.”

LOSING YOURSELF IN THE WORK

Castellucci described a sequence from Tragedia Endogonida which involved actors as priests playing basketball on a stage behind a glass screen: the voices are muffled . This is a sensory theatre of image and sound, but not word – the quality of sound is the cipher. For Persona, a PQ installation, Castellucci created an unbearable mask. The tongue had a heavy metal mechanism that whirred away at a high metronomic pace – appalling in both the noise it made and the thought of putting your fingers in. We are in the land of Greek myths, of oracles, of cruelty.

Portugese artists Borralho & Galante took us to the micro end of the scale with their World of Interiors (in a Box)Rodrigo Garcia’s theatre writings were whispered by two figures lying in stillness. You could lie next to them if you wanted and lose yourself in the the texture of the sound and intimacy.

Meanwhile, Professor Dorita Hannah, Commissioner for Architecture, talked of Diller Scofidio & Renfro’s “ability to walk across scales” starting from the micro experience of “mist on skin”, a reference to the Blur Building  ‘made’ of fog on Lake Neuchâtel.

In projects such as Arbores Laetae (pictured) or the High Line park project in New York,  public space becomes performance space. Renfro explains “a Frame is one-way in theatre; in a public space, it’s two-way – there’s a confusion about who’s looking at whom”. He employs great processes to achieve this: he ‘tips’, ‘slices’, ‘floats’ and ‘exposes’, leading Hannah to observe his architecture as a “framing of the marvellous” and Renfro to remark that “the passers-by ARE the theatre”.

You had to look no further than Kotcích Street where passers-by indeed became the theatre in Rolf Abderhalden’s Fourth Act (pictured), or Árpad Schilling’s Krétakör ensemble, where participants played an immersive theatre game involving extreme risk and self-regulation at the derelict site of Rudé Pravo newspaper.

MODELBOXES ARE NO LONGER ENOUGH!

All of which left the main international competitive exhibition in uncertainty. What you have to do in order to win those coveted prizes can no longer be taken for granted. There’s a general sense of new directions, of scrapping the rule book. I nonetheless found exquisite engagement in Red Cliff  for Peking Opera, designed by Gao Guangjan. Each of these little missiles was adhered to a thin acrylic flat.

And this is Dream of the Red Chamber, for Kunqu Opera designed by Liu Xinglin, (WSD Gold Medal winner for Stage Design). This was actually a collage made up of different scenes pulled together by imaginative layering.

And here is Paul Brown’s design for Aida at Bregenz, so big you can’t even see the edges of the casing.

Maybe it’s no longer enough to show simple modelboxes! Delight in low technology, textural richness and a range of performance genres was almost universally reflected in the choices of the Jury – as in this detail from a dress designed by Luciana Buarque for the Gold Triga-winning Brazil entry.

In a complex dramaturgical world, it isn’t necessary to abandon principles of scenography, even when that world is much transformed and challenged. Es Devlin, pushed by Roni Toren to defend this very point in reference to stadium performance, had no problems in identifying that ‘text’ is always the starting point and the ‘idea’ of text can be interpreted in many ways:

“Where I can, I start with the words. Whether it’s Greek tragedy or Kanye West it’s all about storytelling. Working on a text with a director, you have stage directions;  [with Lady Gaga] it’s how she feels when she wakes up in the morning – that’s the text and those are the stage directions, they don’t get stuck in the 19th century, and it’s different every day.”

Devlin also urged us not to keep hold of ideas.  “I never say hold on –  if directors don’t want it, move on, there’ll be a better one – let someone else have that one.”

NEVER SAY HOLD ON

I return to Lotke’s assertion that PQ is a question, a title, that theatre is just one mode of performance, that scenography perhaps deserves the context of ‘full body performance’ in order to fully represent itself.

Intersection was supported by an academic framework of institutions that included the V&A. The UK is at a disadvantage. Bound by tradition, the method of representation changes little. This year’s exhibit pushed as far as it could within the existing formula (of membership, selection and so on) to respond to the ambitions of PQ’s multi-disciplinary brief. The way we do things was once again reflected in an exhibition design presentation of 8′ x 4′ panels (even if evolved to gold frames for PQ itself).

PQ2011 suggests that it’s time to readdress this formula. It has offered UK scenographers, including all disciplines, a golden opportunity to start to think about PQ2015 as an open brief, a blank space, to be able to ask – as other countries do – What Shall We Do This Time?
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Exquisite Corpse – Soundfjord (article for Artlyst Magazine)

The exhibition Exquisite Corpse is the brainchild of Helen Frosi, Creative Director of Soundfjord, the UK’s first contemporary gallery devoted entirely to Sound Art, and which has been developing as a hub for events, research, development and mentoring in the sonic arts since 2009.

Exquisite Corpse employs a method used by the Surrealists, also used in the game ‘Consequences’. A single starting point, from a selection of Chilli – Taste, Ice – Touch, Walnut – Sight, Storm – Sound, Smoke  – Smell, was sent to Artist A, who wrote Sound Piece A in response. Soundfjord then sent Sound Piece A (without revealing its creator) to Artist B in the chain. This process was repeated a further 8 times. Soundfjord worked with a total of 50 artists, in 5 chains of 10 artists each, covering the 5 senses. The exhibition itself takes the form of a continuous broadcast, making its way through all 50 pieces of varying length, from seconds to 20 minutes.

It’s a neat idea which has generated a huge amount of material. A beautifully presented book contains descriptions written by each of the artists. It’s impossible to take on all the ideas in one sitting – the kind of thing you ‘d want to dip in and out of; several people I talked to preferred to listen simply without knowing anything about the pieces or artists at all. Visually, the exhibition is gentle and unassuming, laid out in a small white gallery space with two speakers and two chairs.

Exquisite Corpse also demonstrates the ease with which sound artists operate as a global community: it is relatively straightforward to put out an open call for works to be submitted via the internet – and hence the works in this exhibition have created some fascinating translations of ideas between cultures and methodologies.

I asked Helen Frosi to select two transitions involving four artists for this article. She spoke about the work of Eugenia Emets (Ukraine) & Debashis Sinha (Canada), and Rie Nakajima (Japan) &  Sid Volter (UK).



HF: Eugenia Emets was the first artist in the Taste chain. She received a string of small red chillis to work with. It was serendipitous that Eugenia received a stimulus that was close to her own creative practice – that of looking into the energy levels, vibrational materials and frequency of matter. Chillis, as Eugenia explains, have been used for centuries to heighten energy levels and awareness, or states of consciousness. Eugenia literally took in this inspiration by consuming the chillis one by one. The work itself is thus a physical and mental translation of the chemicals entering into and dissipating from her body – a ritual and a necessity.

DN: Debashis Sinha was then sent the work anonymously…

HF: Yes, he chose to look further into the notion of Taste and its associations, rather than solely listen to the previous work by Eugenia. Thinking about the tongue and its taboos, he was inspired to create a work referencing a story about the Hindu goddess Kali’s aggression and ultimate ignominy:

I became interested in the taboo of the tongue, as a sexual organ, as a purveyor of rebellion, as a gestural appendage of the body in general, one that is always with us but seldom seen and, when seen, is only seen in the context of primal expression: children stick out their tongues by instinct,  we use our tongues in sensual pleasures.  The tongue is both utterly mundane and a completely transcendental organ of our bodies, deeply connected to our hidden emotional secrets and desires.

Kali, the dark and fearsome goddess, goes on a berserk rampage, driven by bloodlust … her killing sparks a frenzy of destruction that threatens to destroy the three worlds.  Shiva realizes the only way to stop her is to place himself in her path. As her foot falls on his chest, a terrible and disrespectful act, she is brought back to reality and stopped in her tracks, and she bites her tongue in a gesture of shame and embarrassment. This expression is seen on countless images of the goddess around the Hindu world, and it is the one that brought me to the work I present here.” – Debashis Sinha.

DN: You began the chain of works on the theme of Touch by asking Rie Nakajima to think about ice. Rie said she simply went out and bought “a bag of ice from a shop and put it in glasses and simply observed the sounds and movement, and the experience became this sound.”

HF: Rie produced a work from the simple premise that the stimulus she received would directly influence the work she would create. From her simple concept, a complex work on a micro level was produced. A work that asks one to slow down, listen carefully, and to contemplate the complexities of ice and the temporal nature of its being.

DN: Rie’s work was then sent anonymously to Sid Volter who was suffering from a cold!

HF:  This certainly influenced the way he heard Rie’s work. Everything felt low-pitched and enclosed, and in his mind, he interpreted them as sounds inside the body: blood flowing through veins, the heart pumping… It began to rain as he listened, and Sid utilised high-pitched frequencies as a jolt away from the swimmy, sluggish feeling of illness and the bass notes heard on Rie’s recording. His use of high frequencies creates sensations that loop back to Rie’s piece and embraces the notion of Touch.

” I wanted to contrast with high frequency, opposed to the low frequency, while keeping the ‘illness’ feeling I had. A bit like when you touch something freezing cold, or the horrible over-sensitivity when you are ill, or a moment of calm, or even eating something menthol-like. Warm to cold, or both at once. Jerks, spasm, jumps. Your eardrums shuddering. A sharp sensation, hypersensitive to touch & temperature, ‘brain sparks’, shocks, as opposed to a dull ache. And then … peace.” – Sid Volter

Article & illustrations © Dody Nash 2011
Photography copyright belongs to the artists.

SoundFjord
Unit 3b – Studio 28 | 28 Lawrence Road | N15 4ER
London, United Kingdom
13 April at 12:00 – 30 April at 18:00 (by appointment) +44 (0)20 8800 3024

Participating Artists:
Taste Eugenia Emets, Debashis Sinha, April Coker, Yann Novak, Ola Ståhl, Jeremy LeClair, Claudia Molitor, Scott Sherk, Wittwulf Y Malik, Amie Slavin
Touch Rie Nakajima, Sid Volter, Pablo Sans Almoguera, Stillborn With Apples, Peter Cudmore, Duncan McAfee, Song‐Ming Ang, Martin Clarke, Charlie Kerr, Jasmina Maschina,
Sound Ed Osborn, Felicity Ford, Richard Dawson, Hilda Daniel, Shelley Parker, Fabian Kesler, Dan Scott, Dennis Tan, Jack Harris, Joseph Young
Sight Café Concrete, Luc Messinezis, David Gunn with Guy Morgan, Robin Parmar, Diana Combo, Wolfgang Peter Menzel (Earwolf), Edwin Lo, Martin Williams, Daniel Contarelli (Lanark)
Smell Kevin Logan, Matthias Kispert, David Strang, Catherine Clover, Stephen Shiell, Wil Crisp, David van Dokkum, Justin Randolph Thompson, Ansuman Biswas, Jodi Rose


Transformation and Revelation (Review for ArtLyst magazine)

Image: Antony Gormley, ‘Sutra’ for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the Shaolin Warrior Monks, Sadler’s Wells, photo Hugo Glendinning

“I was looking for a way to objectify the life of a monk. The idea of containment or seclusion versus infinite extension was the principal behind the making of the boxes. The boxes are 60 x 60 x 180cm, and the idea was to find a size that would fit the monks of varying ages, physiques, heights, and that this modular box could then be used as a building block for a variety of architectures […]The boxes became body extensions, literally a second body, sometimes offering shelter from the gaze of the audience, and sometimes to be dragged, as if dragging one’s inevitable death.”

Antony Gormley writing, not this time about a new sculpture, but about his designs for ‘Sutra’, a Sadler’s Wells commission for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the Shaolin Warrior Monks. This year, two out of three nominations for the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance went to visual designers – John MacFarlane for ‘Asphodel Meadows’ at the Royal Opera House, and Antony Gormley for ‘Sutra’ – who actually won it.

While there have been mutterings in the dance world (and rightly so), that choreographers and dancers should have been among the nominees, it seems that, every now and again, the importance of design for performance as a visual artform falls into the spotlight.

‘Transformation and Revelation: UK Design for Performance’ is a major new exhibition of over 200 works for design for performance, outstandingly presented in brand new performance facilities at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and which headlines with Gormley’s designs for ‘Sutra’. Unusually, visitors get to examine otherwise unseen work, such as Gormley’s stage plot for the show, and even stand inside the actual wooden boxes used in it.

As exhibition curator Peter Farley says, “theatre design is not simply about clothes and scenery but is primarily concerned, as are other art practices, with the careful layering and interpretation of inspired visual and aural ideas”.

There is also the chance to see the work of less universally known but eminent artists in their field who express themselves through theatre design. John MacFarlane and Yolanda Sonnabend’s work, for example, has always been almost a form of painting.


Image: John MacFarlane, The Wigmaker in ‘Cinderella’, for Birmingham Royal Ballet


Image: Yolanda Sonnabend/Matt Deely, model of ‘Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9’, for K-Ballet Tokyo

Other exhibiting designers working closer to other forms of design are ‘Lion King’ designer Richard Hudson, Paul Brown with his monumental designs for the lakeside opera festival at Bregenz, Bob Crowley who has just delighted London audiences with his designs for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ at the Royal Ballet and Es Devlin, a prolific designer, who is currently working on her design for the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Devlin is a superb colourist who has consistently paid homage to the world of art and architecture for reinterpretation and reinvention.


Image: Es Devlin, ‘Lady Gaga Monster Ball’


Image: Es Devlin, ‘Faust’, for Semperoper Dresden

Famous examples of artists expressing themselves through stage design are of course Pablo Picasso and David Hockney. No painters on display this time (at least not live ones – although there is a fascinating presentation on de Chirico’s ‘Le Bal’ by V&A Research Fellow and costume expert Donatella Barbieri). However we do see exceptional designs by the architect John Pawson for the Royal Ballet’s ‘Chroma’ – choreographed by the it-boy of contemporary and classical dance, not to mention Radiohead music videos, Wayne McGregor.



Image: John Pawson, ‘Chroma’, for The Royal Ballet, Alina Cojocaru/ Ed Watson, photo Richard Davies

Significantly, Pawson’s designs do not overwhelm the viewer with their élan but rather serve to make the performer all important – possibly more so than any other design on display in this exhibition. It’s best to hear from McGregor and Pawson in their own words:

“I’m a big fan of John Pawson’s architecture, and had always wondered how he’d been able to reduce elements to their purest form, to the essential if you like, and I thought spatially for a dance that would be really incredible, if we could take away as much of the interference of a normal stage set, and have something that’s really really pure. So I went and met John and he was thrilled to do his first stage design, and we just talked about how we might be able to provide or really work with the space which extraordinarily gives the dancers a different sense of volume” – Wayne McGregor

“All architecture concerns itself with the way people will use and move through space, but these dynamic issues are obviously heightened on a dance stage. In the end the task was to create the best possible container for movement and light – an environment where the eye is free to register the subtlest shifts in the musculature of the body and in the colour and character of the light. The result is, in one sense, a charged limbo. That the architecture required to create this manifestation of void is actually quite substantial is one not lost on the people responsible for its construction.” – John Pawson


Image: John Pawson, ‘Chroma’, for The Royal Ballet, Steven McRae/Tamara Rojo, photo Richard Davies

Dance lends itself to very pure forms of visual expression for stage designers. Just looking at the dance exhibits alone reveals a good many artists working in the field who produce images in the process of creating performance, which are stunning in their own right.

Kimie Nakano, who trained in Paris fashion ateliers, brings with her profound knowledge of Japanese traditions. She presents her designs for Akram Khan’s ‘Vertical Road’ which have been seen at Sadler’s Wells as well as in Paris, Ottawa, Barcelona and Abu Dhabi.


Image: Kimie Nakano, ‘Vertical Road’, for Akram Khan at Sadler’s Wells, photo Laurent Ziegler

Shizuka Hariu is a scenographer and architect with a passion for dance and has designed Akram Khan’s ‘Sacred Monsters’, for Sadler’s Wells in London, also shown in Brussels, Paris, Sydney and Tokyo. With her architect’s enthusiasm for new materials, Hariu came up with the idea to use a new cotton/aluminium hybrid which made possible this design.


Image: Shizuka Hariu, model of ‘Sacred Monsters’, for Akram Khan at Sadler’s Wells

Pippa Nissen is another architect, working across a broad range of performance mediums. ‘Elephant & Castle’ (for music this time, not dance) is a series of installations set in the landscape of Snape Maltings in Suffolk, through which the audience walked to discover some powerful images, in this case exploring the Hansel and Gretel narrative.


Image: Pippa Nissen, ‘Elephant & Castle’, for Aldeburgh Music, photo David Lambert

Louise Ann Wilson Company (formerly of wilson +wilson) similarly focuses on the rural landscape as a place for performance, and involves audiences walking in small groups to experience the work. ‘Still Life’ consists of Wilson performing alongside Nigel Stewart in their site specific work set within a coastal landscape. A visitor wrote “Louise Ann’s haunting stillness was quite ominous and powerful. It was as if she was part of the surroundings, a presence that is always there and always watching – much like nature itself.”


Image: Louise Ann Wilson Company, ‘Still Life’, site specific work in collaboration with Sap Dance Company, photo Nicola Tarr

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of theatrics to be found within this gutsy snapshot of UK design for performance. And if most of the shows I’ve cited feel a little polite, there is always Australian opera designer Paul Edward’s wonderfully rude and glossy image of ‘Bartered Bride’ for Staatstheater Darmstadt – an image that would send most fashion photographs in the vein of Tim Walker diving off the wall for safe cover.


Image: Paul Edwards, ‘The Bartered Bride’, Staatstheater Darmstadt

If the world of stage design has always seemed like a bit of a mystery, or if it seems like a treasure trove just waiting to be plundered, my advice would be to take the next train to Cardiff, just 2 hours from London, and go see for yourself.

Article ©Dody Nash 2011

Notes:

In June 2011, 12 exhibits from this exhibition of over 200 designs will form the UK’s representation at the ‘Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space’ at Prague’s Museum of Modern Art; a broader selection of exhibits will also be exhibited at the V&A and the Baltic in 2012.

The fully illustrated Transformation and Revelation catalogue with excellent prefaces on the art of design for performance by editors Peter Farley and Greer Crawley is available via Amazon.

Dody Nash is a designer and artist working in opera, dance and public spaces. She is exhibiting ‘Swanhunter’ for Opera North at ‘Transformation and Revelation’.

Article commissioned and published by Artlyst at  http://www.artlyst.com/articles/transformation-and-revelation-uk-design-for-performance

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Michael Clark, Royal Ballet New Works

Friday morning and I’m still delighted and exhausted by seeing Michael Clark’s Come, Been and Gone at the Barbican last night. I’m not surprised this was the knock out show of Edinburgh last year.

Clark is master of a sophisticated visual and dance language, which is strongly rooted in 1970s America.  It has non-stop invention. There were many moments where I thought – “I have never seen that before”, moments that flooded me with dance memories, high octane moments, moments of pure adrenalin that left me high well into the early hours.

There is something like a hundred costumes, seemingly changing with every lighting state, illustrating every idea to express Clark’s highly personal and autobiographical narrative (from ‘swamp’ to a state of apotheosis) … costume and lighting and music and choreography become interchangeable, sensational and assured. The sheer number of costumes and the invention within them is that important Clark ingredient of excess.

The sexy smooth silver leggings of the poster are jaw dropping in real life; leotard and tights which appear normal female dance apparel until a male dancer comes on wearing the same thing (then you see it’s a unitard with an Opie-esque ‘graphic’ of a satin leotard sewn on); tight breeches where the cut gives the semblance of a cod piece caught in braces; striped unitards – each individually working with the dancers’ body shapes, lengths of fabric falling down between legs: all daring, varied – these are brash experiments so brash they couldn’t possibly fail.

Charles Atlas’ lighting is phenomenal – it takes atmospheres well beyond the edge of the stage, and has an intensity, a colour which hits the sweet spot.  At one point a stage that had been grey for a good while, just begins to bleed into colour: a backlit green (it’s pretty hard to figure out what kind of green) – hits the top of backcloth and drains down it, until it pervades and lightens to a kind of pea soup…it’s judged absolutely perfectly, emotively.

The visual language also plays with the scale of the dancers, altering their stage presence. It can make them larger, smaller, isolated, or distinct life-forms, part of an eco system – moving around, Cunningham-like creatures in the sea. Kate Coyne, head to toe in ochre with needles sticking out of her, has a looming presence in Heroin; seeming to emanate from her is a simpering, dark and potent light, which extends well beyond the edge of the stage, making every movement painful to watch. At other times the dancers are like ants, almost meaningless against the huge projection of Bowie singing Heroes, lost in the sub-bass of the sound system and the lyrics which speak so powerfully to us. The projection ends, restoring the presence of the dancers, making them bigger even.

It’s extraordinary. It’s an opus, which just keeps coming and coming, and just when you thought you had reached the climax of Heroes, there are two more sections which utterly surpass everything which comes before.

The first is Michael Clark himself dancing right at the front of the stage under the words INTERMISSION; it’s special, it has an integrity and an intensity (qualities you get when a choreographer suddenly appears in their own work), both modest and outrageous, and takes us into an entirely different language … the unexpectedness of it reminds me that sometimes meaning lies in difference. In fact all the narrative surprises of which this is just one, seem born out of invention and experimentation rather than an intention to shock: Clark’s dance language is one of pure art. In the final section (Aladdin Sane, Jean Genie)– we are lost in endless mesmeric colour fields.  Orange metallic figures on orange, a snap fade to orange figures against cyan that makes your heart leap.

All of this is about wanting to see the work right at the edge (in its most full meaning), present. Work where you can hear the voice, the individual. In Clark’s case the language is knowing, it corresponds with the music, it’s rude, cheeky and unashamed and extremely, extremely present.

It’s not often you get to see a show where this is the case. Cunningham always had it. Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar has it in ambundance. Come, Been and Gone is very personal. Michael Clark puts himself into it completely. He is completely himself, and yet pays homage to the learning, the experiences and the people he learnt from. Almost as if he is saying: “this is everything that’s important about me”. For the audience the effect was life-affirming.

Over at The Linbury, The Royal Ballet is showing new works by young choreographers. It’s the hot dance ticket of the week. I find the chance to see this programme of emerging work an incredibly special and valuable experience that I would not want to miss.  The past two years have been a barometer for the developing voice of Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins leading to their main stage works for 2010 (sadly I missed the Watkins).  The dancers have been particularly encouraged by Wayne McGregor to see other art forms, exhibitions and other kinds of dance; working in the Linbury gives the choreographers the resources (and I mean resources, not budget) to start working with designers to develop visual language which extends beyond the movement.

More designers are involved than last year, and it pays off too. This is also about getting things out of your system. These are not intended to be finished, perfect pieces, for there is nothing more daunting than being given a main stage commission without several opportunities to find out what works and what doesn’t.  This can mean ‘trying all the toys in the pram’ if you haven’t had that opportunity (dramatically more expensive on the main stage!). But you need to try all these things if you are going to end up with the kind of mastery of language, the ability to endlessly invent visually, musically and choreographically, of a Cunningham, Forsythe or a Clark.

With my thoughts much about work where you can hear the voice, the individual, Kristen McNally once again demonstrates a clearly defined present voice: she understands how to use the particular stage of the Linbury in a dance theatre which draws on her own particular world of pop parody and quotation. Slava Samodurov, about to premiere his first piece for the Mikhailovsky Ballet in July with the same creative team, is outward looking, really curious about the world about him both in design and choreography, and yet remains true to his classical Russian roots.

Photos © Jake Walters (Benjamin Warblis, publicity shot for Come, Been and Gone) & Dave Morgan (Kristen McNally rehearsing with Thomas Whitehead for Don’t hate the Player, Hate the Game).

Another pic from #Royalballet Liam Scarlett's 'Asphodel Meado... on Twitpic

A rousing first night at the ROH for Liam Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows (part of a triple bill), had many of the audience on their feet applauding the first major piece by this talented young choreographer. When the last note had ended I wanted it to start all over again.

I’m already a fan of  the intimate sensibility of Scarlett’s work, and he brought us more, but now in a substantial work, with a classical Balanchine-like structuring and formality (a set of three pas de deux set, jewel-like, within the corps), and an emotional and dramatic sensibility which made me think of Macmillan. Poulenc’s sharply rhythmed Double Piano Concerto with its gloriously slow Mozartian second movement, is an astute choice.

Design was deftly handled with the maturity of John Macfarlane and Jennifer Tipton, who supported the morbid beauty of Scarlett’s world with a potent atmosphere that felt like the daylight had been sucked out of it. It builds on Consolations and Liebestraum, which was Scarlett’s offering for the new works at the Linbury last May (it too explored a compulsive language between Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside, who are the substance and character of that tender second movement).

It was also a great night for the stage crew – 3 complex sets and something like 100 crew involved (about 36 dancers performing), with a staggering 37 scenery Qs in the Scarlett piece alone. Macfarlane’s set had 2 cloths, false pros, an upstage flown strip of light (boxed fluorescents faced in BP), and 3 sets of 3 black legs on sliders which tracked to create a negative image of the designer’s painterly ‘barcode’ backcloth design.

Thematically, the designs for the triple bill gelled completely: long trains on skirts in both Wheeldon’s Electric Counterpoint and Mats Ek’s Carmen, polka dots and stripes, metallic colours, monotones and neutrals – moments of outrageousness underpinned by a classical solidity. Tamara Rojo had the evening in the palm of her hand; Kirstin McNally was superb amid a virtuosic casting of solos, duets and character parts.

Musically terrific: Rodion Shchedrin’s arrangement of Carmen is faultless, Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, with James Woodrow again on electric guitar,  is always worth it (although best when it’s so loud you can feel the floor reverberating) and then of course Barry Wordsworth conducting Poulenc.

There’s a much more detailed review by Ismene Brown plus photos by Elliott Franks.

Yesterday I was at the Ciné Lumière seeing La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris. Fascinating. I have wondered before what it must be like rehearsing in that garret-like cupola of the Paris Opera, historic but tight on space!  Captured by the beauty of Luisa Spinatelli’s designs for Pierre Lacotte’s 2001 version of Paquita (so good that I mistook them for Georgiadis). Look out for the tutus in the Pas De Deux. It’s clear that the style of the company – the physique and particular relationship to music – suits Wayne McGregor well.