A Meeting Place – reflections

I am sitting in the cafe at St. Pancras Station where I met Lea Anderson at the beginning of the process. This seems the most appropriate place to reflect on what happened last night at the Southbank Centre. What we did to the programme, to the space, to the stage, to each other, to the audience, to perceptions, to expectations. Like the election results, I am struggling for clarity. Sue emailed after the performance to say she enjoyed the connections and the chance to work in a different context. Gauri rang me to say she felt she had taken the challenge of intercepting her own process, to reveal the mechanism of the dance and to invite feedback from a collection of artists who work in different ways with different voices.

Her voice trailing out of the auditorium was a dot dot dot not a full stop. The event was followed by a post-show talk but, as Stine said, the talk itself could have been a part of the performance. The performance extended into the bar where an election night event was taking place. A heightened sense of awareness of political change was the perfect bookend to Lea Anderson’s subtle intervention into the public space before the performance officially began. They paused. They mirrored strangers. They flirted with other people’s private space in a public place. Front of House staff and the technical team in the foyer asked if this was a part of the performance or not. And when they entered the QEH towards the end, holding their compasses and calling out coordinates, plotting a route from the auditorium to the backstage area, it was an interruption. An interruption like the one Thomas suggested at the beginning but one that brought together three artists for a moment.

Vicky – Candoco’s dancer was completing a dance sequence and looking up at the disturbance in the audience. Gauri took to the stage to untie her swing, to unleash its potential (someone told me the tethered swing offered so much interesting potential of movement and they spent the entire evening wondering how it would be used). Lea’s dancers moved through this image, an echo of their action in the foyer, as Gauri’s dancer Jesal moved from the auditorium to the swing. As they moved backstage she moved onstage, pausing to take her shoes off and leave them in the space Boris had occupied earlier with his electrified talk. Inviting an audience member to carry on a dance fire in an impromptu dance off.

There was an edge of risk, an edge of change, an edge of tension between the different artists’ work and for me, this was the beginning of a troubling, of a problematising of the space and what it can do. My favourite feedback was from Matthias Sperling who said it was like the seminal Sex Pistols gig in Manchester which kickstarted punk and spawned a thousand bands. Donald Hutera likened it to an elbowing. To create a space around dance. To allow wriggle room for dancers.

Boris proposed that a museum of dance could support a sabbatical for dancers who have given too much. Or to accommodate museums that were too fragile to survive. He talked about how the building is constantly moving, changing, dancing. The holes of previous get ins that mark the walls and the stories they tell us about what happened here. The indentations of sixty years of stilettos in the foyer. How a museum of dance can be mobile not static. A Meeting Place aimed to capture this movement within the frame of an event on the edge of change. In our practices, in our programme, in our country. Now as we enter a period of uncertainty, it is a tribute to the institution’s own mobility that A Meeting Place happened last night. I was proud to be a part of it and would like to thank the Southbank Centre for the opportunity. This is not an end but a beginning of something.

A Meeting Place – one day to go…

We arrive in the morning. At the beginning of the day we sit onstage and talk about A Meeting Place. Who we are. What we might do. How we might inhabit each other’s worlds or be sensitive to the logic of each other’s offering. Thomas’ section, which explores his inter-relationship with objects, would be impacted upon by another human presence. Whereas Pedro and Stine need others to take part in their routine as it is a translation of movement, from body to body. I make a suggestion about how Sue’s circle might be observed by others onstage, from Thomas’ chairs, how his material might enter her material. In a lovely way, Sue says she is not sure about that but is waiting for my idea to cook.

We talk about how each artist might sit amongst the audience. To enter and exit the stage by stepping on and off from the auditorium. Breaking the fourth wall. The space looks brutally honest. The tabs are open revealing the scaffold tower. There is no dance floor so we see the wooden floor Gauri talked about as warm. Siobhan Davies and her dancers experiment with circles in front of a dance film shot from above. They talk as they move about the uneven floor. Their orbit drifts. They gravitate towards the door on stage left, as if sucked into the gravitational pull of the exit. We hear their breathing through radio mics.

Thomas Lehmen joins the dancers in inscribing a circle onto the stage and steps out of the sequence to set up his objects for the extract of Schrottplatz. He plays out his technical percussion. This is the first time I hear the sounds of the space. The QEH is filled with the crackling of a newspaper unfolding around the head of his microphone. At one point, one of the army of Southbank Centre technicians picks up a lighting cable. He thinks it might be in the way or not set up properly. Thomas tells him that it is one of his objects. I hear the technician tell his mates with disbelief ‘He said it was a prop!’ I watch the technician look on in a mixture of incredulity and concern as Thomas bashes a lantern with a microphone. The technicians are on hand to spike his chairs, taping squares of tape onto the floor. But we decide that Pedro and Stine will move the chairs offstage at the end. The technicians want to close the tabs but we ask them to leave it open. Again they look bemused. This is dance without a dance floor. Theatre without a curtain.

Boris proposes transposing la musee de la danse onto the QEH responding to its architecture and history. He proposes entering the museum from the skatepark. He will operate in the space in between the stage and the auditorium, it is an artist’s talk. At the beginning he will describe the graffiti outside and at the end he will open the curtain for Sue’s film. We talk about different performance modes – from the discursive e.g. Boris, to the performative e.g. Thomas. Or a combination of both e.g. Candoco presenting a dance extract with Stine’s spoken context. We ask how people might be stepping out of their comfort zone. Gauri, in particular, is challenging herself to think and work in new ways. It is amazing to see her swing in the space, what was an off-the-cuff remark has become a reality. Her dancer sits on the swing and Gauri walks around the stage, taking up every square foot of space, saying ‘The voice travels very well’. The soundscape Bathysphere have created is introduced and she stands next to bells, making the movements she would make if she was wearing them. It is a beautiful and poetic deconstruction of her dance practice. We imagine the bells. She leaves the stage.

A Meeting Place – two days to go…

Another day. Another train. I’m heading to London to meet Sue, Boris, Thomas, Eszter, Pedro, Stine and Gauri at South Bank Centre. Lea will arrive later. I am listening to the soundscape Bathysphere have created for the event on the train. Sue says ‘So I arrived at the meeting place’ and her voice repeats. Folding in on itself like a limb. Falling to the ground like a curtain. Pedro talks with his rich accent and the sound of his smile resonant in the recording. ‘Sometimes this happens in meeting places…’ Gauri’s voice rises and falls, its natural musicality, enhanced by the swell of echo and harmony. She says ‘For me A Meeting Place is where the eyes meet, where the eyes meet, where the eyes meet.

There has been some last minute shuffling with the  timetable to accommodate late arrivals, busy itineraries and potential crossovers. We all meet for lunch at 1.30pm today and this will be the first time we are all together. We will have our meals together in the foyer at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And whatever happens, perhaps this time and this space, will be the most revealing meeting place of all. I think of the Italian notion of ‘slow food’, taking time together to eat and talk as long as we want to. Not a sandwich over a laptop on a train like I’m having now, but an artistic encounter, sharing time, space and food in a meeting place where whether we talk about the work or not we are together.

Food has seemed important to A Meeting Place. It reminds me of the talk we had at the beginning about different chefs serving different courses. Different chefs, different energies, different tastes. We considered preparing a meal for the audience onstage. Like Quarantine’s EatEatEat, the Spill Feasts or The Last Supper by Reckless Sleepers. I have been taking note of the food in our meetings.

Sue talked about what sandwich she was eating when we met. She listed the Italian ice creams she enjoyed on her holiday. Pedro made me coffee at Siobhan Davies Dance Studio. Lea ordered sparkling mineral water at the Oyster Bar. Thomas and I drank green tea at PACT Zollverein, stealing biscuits from someone else’s rider. Boris introduced me to Vietnamese cuisine. Gauri and I talked about likening her work to the pepper, the seasoning, giving the event a pinch of spice.

I thought about offering the audience food or drink from each encounter. But the logistical challenges of providing Italian ice cream and Vietnamese finger food may have been too much. We will have wine on arrival. Perhaps this will be an act of communion between the artists and the audience, the venue and the event. Food and drink are offerings, a meeting place in itself, the punctuation between our conversations. The event will borrow the structure of an eight course meal, with the soundscape as the condiments, or as Chris described it to me, ‘the sorbet between courses’.

A Meeting Place – three days to go…

I am sitting on a train heading home after performing at a live art festival in Cambridge. The landscape is gun barrel straight as the Fens whizz past the window. Tomorrow I will be on another train to London for A Meeting Place. Some of the artists are already at the Southbank Centre. Gauri Sharma Tripathi is rehearsing today. She texts to say she would like a ten minute sample from Bathysphere to work with in the studio. It is a loop of her saying ‘the voice carries in the space’. It sounds like a mantra.

The Guardian recently published a guide to meetings that might prove useful tomorrow. According to a journal called Applied Cognitive Psychology, meetings are less productive than working on your own. What does this mean for A Meeting Place? Well, firstly we could ask are we trying to find a solution to a problem? It seems to me we are problematising the space and our relationship to it.

We have not all met in the first place so we have been working individually already. Tomorrow and Thursday we will have the choice to spend time working together or to spend time working apart. We have divided the space up into one and a half hour slots and each artist has equal time in the QEH. But I have asked them to consider opening up their space for others to sit in, to input, to feedback, to interact or to participate.

So far, Thomas Lehmen and Boris Charmatz will work together to see what connections they can make between their work. ‘Boris likes provocations’ said Thomas when we met. ‘He will be my guide’ he added in an email yesterday.’ In this way they will use A Meeting Place to continue an ongoing collaborative conversation. Boris seems happier than anyone to work on something in situ. Gauri will sit in on the Candoco rehearsal and learn a sequence of movement with Vicky – their dancer. Vicky will join Lea Anderson’s Quicksilver group.

Pedro or Stine will take part in Siobhan Davies’ description of the space. Thomas will also describe what he sees before performing his own extract. Moving from the work of another to the work of his own, and his object logic. Eszter Salamon will ask all the artists to take part in her reflections on future. These crossovers raise questions of ownership and authorship as we ask, as Eszter did when I spoke to her, ‘What is my dance? What is my signature?

In between these moments of interaction there will be an opportunity to spend time separately reflecting on their own work. The invitation to each other to view what they do has been left to the artist to consider. It is up to them as to how open their process might become in this context. It perhaps reflects the ‘generosity of the invitation’ from the Southbank Centre, as Frank Bock described it at our first meeting. A Meeting place is a generous invitation.

A Meeting Place – four days to go…

Bank Holiday Monday and as the roads are gridlocked and the trains delayed we are putting the finishing touches to the rehearsal schedule. Understandably no one wants to start rehearsing at 9am in the morning on Wednesday. There will be jetlag.

Lea Anderson missed our first meeting because she was in Australia and New Zealand. Candoco and Gauri Sharma-Tripathi are on tour around the UK at the moment. Eszter Salamon is coming from Boston via Paris and Brussels. Thomas Lehmen is coming from Phoenix, Arizona via Essen and Berlin. Siobhan Davies has spent time in Italy and France since we began talking about the project. In the last month, Boris Charmatz has travelled from Paris to Utrecht to Beirut to Nagoya to London to Paris and back to London. A Meeting Place is as much a meeting place of schedules as it is of dancers.

My travels to meet London to Utrecht to meet Boris and Essen to meet Thomas, were unaffected by delays and even avoided the Volcanic ash. These journeys made me think about the intercultural dialogue already taking place here. How the artists involved in the project inhabit this transcultural liminal space where nationality or cultural identity or artform cease to matter. Four hours after leaving Nottingham, I was sittting at a Vietnamese restaurant in Utrecht with Boris and his team for Expo Zero; A German architect, a Singaporese curator, a French producer, an American contemporary dancer.

As we wrapped our rice paper parcels, another kind of intercultural dialogue all together, we talked about the altermodern – Nicolas Bourriaud’s suggestion for the successor of postmodernity. We could consider the cultural context of A Meeting Place as a model of the altermodern. Artists working across contexts, across borders, across disciplines, a performance talk and a dance film colliding in a theatre. A choreographer talking. A dancer walking. I am not trained in dance, I come from an experimental theatre context, but to apply a live art dramaturgy to the context of dance, in the traditional environment of the QEH, is another transdisciplinary transaction that aims to blur potential boundaries.

One of Bourriaud’s exemplars is Simon Starling’s ShedBoatShed. Starling erected a shed at one end of a river, deconstructed it to build a boat, sailed down the river, and reconstructed it into a shed again. This idea of a slippery practice, a work that refuses to stay still, to be pinned down, is apt to our discourse at the QEH. We are aiming to reconfigure the space, to subvert the expectations of its function. To start the performance before we begin, to end with a dot dot dot not a full stop. To invite the audience onstage and to perform in the auditorium. I wrote this at the beginning of the process:

We might consider A Meeting Place as a series of planes which do not necessarily meet at all, but which overlap, cover and uncover, hide and reveal each other, predict and contradict, ebb and flow.

A Meeting Place – five days to go…

Following on from yesterday’s post about ‘in between spaces’, Lea Anderson told me I should claim the spaces in between. I am creating a soundscape with Bathysphere to play in between each artist’s work. We are sampling interviews with the artists themed around different areas of interest e.g. audience, body / movement / dance, change, meeting place, process, questions, south bank, space and uncertainty.

I am at a live art festival at the moment and some of the most interesting interactions take place during the gaps between performances. That is when I am writing this now, after one thing ends and another thing begins. Today, I overheard a programmer of a well-known festival say too loudly on leaving a performance: ‘It was so close to being a parody of itself’. I wonder how we could create a space for this not to happen on Thursday. To find a space for reflection on the work within the work. For artists to say what they want to say to an audience and for the audience to reply.

I think we have this already with Boris Charmatz and Siobhan Davies talking about their practice. Boris will outline a manifesto and Siobhan will talk over a dance film as other performers describe the space and how it feels. Eszter Salamon will invite the audience to lie onstage and contemplate the future, their future, for her future performance which will be a science fiction opera. A Meeting Place is both a space for artists to share ideas that may be absorbed into their next project or a time to reflect on the space itself.

We would like that talk of future to dissolve into a post-show conversation between me and Nicky Molloy, Dance programmer at the Southbank Centre. We might conceive a talk where I ask Nicky why she chose to invite these artists to respond to questions of where and what dance is now. She might ask me to describe the process of how individual meetings between us led to the event. We might ask the artists and the audience to enter into a dialogue about the experience and consider this as a part of the act of meeting as well. Not so much a post-show talk as a talk as part of the show.

Not a comment overheard in the foyer but a conversation between the people who make it happen, that builds a bridge, not a wall, between the artist and the audience. Pedro Machado told me he would like his dancer – Vicky – to be a bridge between the artists and the audience, as he considers Candoco to be. Vicky will welcome the audience, collect performers’ sweat, breath and thoughts. Maybe the Southbank Centre is a keystone in the bridge. Nicky mentioned that at her first event this year she found herself shaking the audience members’ hands as they entered the QEH. It was, she said, the only thing that felt right. A Meeting Place will extend its welcome like a handshake.

A Meeting Place – six days to go…

Less than a week to go until A Meeting Place and we are moving faster. We are trying to find a swing for Gauri Sharma-Tripathi. We are trying to find archive recordings of J. G. Ballard in the QEH. We are trying to work out ways to invite the audience onstage. There is no precedent for what we are doing.

I am staying in a hotel and thinking about ‘in between places’, liminal spaces. Marc Auge writes about hotels as ‘non-places’ that people pass through rather than stay. Like the train stations and airports I passed though to meet the artists or the Oyster Bar at St. Pancras where I interviewed Lea Anderson. Lea told me about how she was interested in analysing human behaviour in relation to architecture at the Southbank Centre. To find out which areas are corridors and which are destinations by looking at how worn the carpet is.

My hotel bed is made for one-night stays. I am looking at my single-service milks and sachets of instant coffee that will be topped up when I have gone. I  think about the objects in the hotel room and the things they might have seen. Thomas Lehmen was telling me about the extract he will present at the QEH. He will bring a selection of objects to the Southbank Centre. A hatchet. A tomato. A tin of sardines. A microphone that he will use to amplify his voice but talk to as an object. Describing to a microphone how it works.

In Schrottplatz, Thomas describes the world and contemporary dance to his objects. Like Joseph Beuys trying to describe contemporary art to a dead hare, there is a beautiful futility to this. And it stems from his disillusionment with the human race, manifested in this ‘philosophical dance’. This has posed some interesting challenges, because initially I imagined that Thomas’ might be able to accommodate an interruption from another artist. But now his world is made up entirely of objects a human would seem incongruous. His in between place is somewhere between a human and an object, and that is why he can speak with them. His meeting place will be an existential one.

A Meeting Place is an in between place in itself, somewhere between a performance and a process. It is also somewhere we will attempt to pin down something that is never fixed, that is mobile by its very definition as dance. Boris Charmatz describes dance as fleeting and ephemeral in the manifesto for his museum which he says will open when ‘the first gesture is complete’. Maybe by looking at the carpet, or imagining a dialogue with objects, we begin to explore what the context for the work, and the world we inhabit, might be.

‘Perhaps the immobility of the things around us is imposed upon them by our certainty that they are themselves and not others. By the immobility of our mind confronting them’ – Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Volume One