Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Nocturne: Marc Brew 002

Introducing Marc Brew's triple bill at Tramway, Nocturne has none of the melancholic shades suggested by its name and influence (Whistler's Nocturne). Rather, it is a lively pas de quartre, bouncing across a pair of double beds and evoking the sexual excitement of new love against the comfortable sensuality of the old.

Using the double beds as trampoline like stages, and gradually merging the beds into a single central mattress, Brew captures sensual joy in a series of dynamic duets - there is even a cheeky humour when the characters throw off the covers and fling clothes across the stage, abandoning the restraint that their balletic discipline established in the early movements. The bed becomes the place of fun, of connection - only the ponderous spoken word segment hints at the more disappointing possibilities of the night, acting as a sharp contrast to the dancer's acrobatic mingling.

As a programmatic first piece, Nocturne establishes a clear style: Brew emphasises the line of classical ballet, adding a rough and ready energy, wry wit and sense of fun. Indeed, the cheeky grin that briefly flashes across his lips during the applause is like a signature to his style - modest, confident and charming.

Remember When: Marc Brew 001

For his solo, Remember When, Marc Brew draws on his ballet experience to craft a piece of touching fragility: against the huge video  projection backdrop, Brew sits in one corner, vulnerable and rotating his arms through a cycle of often jerky and abrupt sequences. Despite the scale of the projection,  which features Brew performing similar movements in a shopping centre, obscured by an escalator and filmed through glass, Brew's delicate presence cultivates an intimacy, while his careful placement of hands and fluid shifts in shape imitate thoughts tumbling before being tamed into order.

Against the broader, sensual scope of Nocturne, Remember When is poignant and lonely: melancholic cello evokes the grand solos of ballet and Brew's stillness of body contrasts with the agitated flow of his arms and neck. Yet it affirms that Brew is capable of adapting his classical training towards a deeply personal choreography and perfectly captures the enchanting sadness that accompanies recollection of times less lonely in solitude.

Transcription of Conversation about Ben Frost

"Classical music and rock'n'roll have never got on too well. It's been the problem of rock since about 1966 - probably about the time that the Velvet Underground started fiddling about in Warhol's Factory. It wants to be taken seriously as art. There's nothing worse than stupid rockers trying to make serious music. Don't believe me? I've got the complete works of Yes on my hard drive, have a listen."

"Are you saying you don't like Lou Reed?"

"Never met him. But he doesn't come across too well when Lester Bangs interviewed him. The point isn't whether the Velvets are any good - but the presence of a vinyl copy of their first album in Urban Outfitters suggests that they are more of a fashion accessory than a vital musical force these days. Yes, I know they don't make music any more, but part of the recording revolution ensured that music could exist even after the musicians had had their respective emotional or pharmaceutical crises-"

"This is the last time I ever take you to a concert. You just enjoy moaning..."

"(Expletive deleted). No, I am developing a critical discourse around the status of electronic music. With added alcohol. I'm not saying that Ben Frost comes out of the same tradition as the progressive rock of the 1970s - frankly, you wouldn't have got me in there if I thought he had anything to do with Jethro Tull. But the event we saw tonight did enforce the idea that rock and classical ought to remain in opposition."

"Ben Frost isn't rock'n'roll, and it's another one of your deliberate misreadings to suggest otherwise. Your ambition seems to revolve around applying inappropriate aesthetic parameters..."

"And seeing what happens. I've explained this before. I do exactly what Ben Frost does - I test what happens when you place one art form in a different context. Admittedly, Ben Frost is probably more interesting in The Old Fruitmarket than I am wandering around The Merchant City full of coffee..."

"Do you want to tell me why you think Ben Frost is rock'n'roll? Here's the objections: he uses a laptop to manipulate sound, he shapes albums in a way that has little in common with traditional pop structure and the three minute track. He takes on major themes and is not limited by the industry that surrounds rock music..."

"Yes were under the impression that their albums were influenced by eastern philosophy. That's a "major theme". But that isn't the point. Frost's instrumentation echoes the rock format: guitars, a bit of drumming and the electronics, although manipulated by a computer, are just a natural move from the experimental approaches of bands like Swans. Remember the start of the gig, before he came on. There was the new Swans album playing and his kit was all over the stage. A computer - I love the way he taped the cover to hide the brand, so anti-commercial - a drum  kit which is probably pretty close to the ones used by every rock'n'roller since Elvis - and a big whack of speakers. That was all an announcement: I am here to rock. And rock is the musical form that is most concerned with volume."

"I'd argue that the laptop is more associated with either techno or the soundscaping that is so often used for choreography..."

"See, this is what makes Frost fascinating. He comes from a tradition that includes Brian Eno - his ambient music militates against rock's macho posturing - someone even wrote a book about how Eno's production style was the antithesis of rock'n'roll. But Eno was in Roxy Music and he produced U2. They might not be fashionable - and part of their uncoolness comes exactly from the awkward sterility of Eno's production against the band's instinct to be a good time rock'n'roll band - but U2 are a by-word for stadium rock."

"Even Eno can't make U2 hip. But that's probably because of Bono. So is Eno, and this tradition you are inventing, rock or not rock?"

"It's both. That's the tension we saw played out tonight. On one level, there's no reason at all for Frost to perform By The Throat live. It's a wonderful recording, made all the more fascinating by the process of creation - those wolf sounds were apparently made on a double-bass. And it is conceptually complete. It's a studio creation, and although he remixes it live, it doesn't need the presence of the performer to make it immediate and visceral."

"But by playing it live, he adds the presence - which is very rock'n'roll, I suppose. And all those instruments - signifiers of rock?"

"Yep, and rock itself is a signifier of something aggressive, energetic, powerful. In theory, adding that to By The Throat lends it... well, a toughness. And look at how Frost performed - guitar slung over the shoulder, getting the drummer on to give it some tribal punch. It's rock'n'roll right there."

"However... after your first sip of that double espresso, you were burbling about classical music. Was that just the caffeine talking?"

"No, it's where the problems come in. Something about Apollo and Dionysus. The way that the venue was designed for a classical show - "

"There were no seats, that's rock..."

"Yeah, but most people just stood and watched. The lack of seating is more usually to give people space to dance."

"I saw that you went for a stroll."

"I was dancing. I was improvising a one man non-contact jam. Interestingly, the music was much more exciting when I was pacing about. But the way the actual music was presented, the way it was received, had more in common with a classical concert. And, given the best way to listen to the album is as a single piece, the audience weren't wrong... unlike me, they weren't misreading it."

"That's the non-rock part being played out, then? And his lack of rock'n'roll front man antics. As theatre, it's pretty boring to watch."

"Hence people have a wee lie down, or closing their eyes to listen. Or me staring at the bar for ten minutes, watching people buy drinks to this glacial soundtrack. With the red neon above, it became a lost scene from a David Lynch movie."

"So you are saying that the gig served two functions - or  has a dual identity? Rock and not rock? But that's fascinating."

"If you perceive it through a series of sign-systems, yes. But rock draws on an energy that is immediate and visceral. So, as rock, it fails."

"So it's classical?"

"Well, I didn't get confused and think I was listening to Arvo Part,  so no."

"It's beyond classification?"

"We could call it "electronica" and recognise that the simplistic systems I have applied don't work. Electronica craves its own format for performance, but falls back into the twin defaults of classical and  rock."

"It's pretty hectic being you. What's it like going to a hardware store?"

"Like entering a room full of cyborgs. But I have a suspicion that Frost knows about this problem. There's a bonus track on By The Throat called Studies for Michael. It is a typical title for a classical piece. But I reckon the Michael in question is Gira, out of Swans. So, he's making a point about the music he makes."

"(Laughter). David Stubbs does compare bits of By The Throat to Arvo Part. Major fail, Criticulous."

Extract from (Highly Pretentious) Essay on Musical Performance

The connecting strand between Ben Frost's live re-enactment of his By The Throat album, the Minimal festival's evening of Arvo Part's choral music and Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers - all appearing in Glasgow in a single week - is not so much in any shared musical heritage as each performance's balance of the theatrical and the musical. Taiko drumming comes from a Japanese tradition - made explicit by the welcome guest appearance of Mugenkyo's teacher - while Part's compositions are very European: the use of language on stage during the recitals, Japanese and Latin respectively, emphasise that the manipulation of noise into music is culturally determined and while Frost and Part share bits of their audience, Mugenkyo attract a very different crowd. Despite the simple categories of newspapers and magazines, grouping these three shows together is not as obvious as it appears.

Although the word "performativity" has been heinously misused in recent years - originally part of Judith Butler's attempts to disassociate ideas of gender identity from naturalism, but now a bland catch-all for the performance potential of any action, and flung about with abandon by critics and students to describe anything that has had a performance made about it - it might be the best approach to understand both the similarities and differences in the three events. Disconnecting it from any feminist context, perfomativity will be defined for the rest of this essay as being the qualities of performance that are defined by the nature of the art. This definition does not address the problems of misapplying Butler's original idea, but it does help to clarify how Ben Frost's live show is fundamentally different from Mugenkyo.

First of all the actual instruments and performers used during each of the three performances need to be considered. In brief, Ben Frost predominantly uses a laptop, slings on a guitar to build up some treated and distorted loops, sits down at a piano for a spot of mutant honkytonk - the Jools Holland collaboration may be expected in the next decade - and invites a drummer on-stage for the occasional bash on a classic rock kit. Two performers - Frost himself, doing most of the work, and the percussion. 

Although the Arvo Part performance features a variety of line-ups - the first half alone has assembled choir, choir with added big drum, solo voice and organ - it works around a combination of the untreated voices of  highly trained singers and acoustic instrumentation associated with western classical music. Stabat Mater, which made up the second half of the evening, pitched two trios together - violin, viola and cello against soprano, alto and tenor. 

Mugenkyo Taiko, meanwhile, had a wide variety of drums from Japan. They all looked really cool and, not coincidently, very foreign to the western tradition. The core Mugenkyo team consisted of two women, who also looked really cool piling about the stage and whacking big drums, and five guys who had this sweet martial artist meets rock'n'roll vibe about them. They were joined by their teacher and two of his students - these three were given much respect by Neil Mackie, Mugenkyo's main man and the compère for the evening.

Even this limited and increasingly fatuous analysis of the three events clarifies the fundamental differences between the artists. Despite the writer's apparent inability to maintain the academic tone of the first paragraphs, and the sudden descent into self-referential analysis, each event offers a different foundation for musical performance. That both Ben Frost and Mugenkyo had their kit set up before they arrived on-stage suggests that the instruments themselves were offered as a form of introduction: the spectacular array of Taiko drums or Frost's tangled electronics present a clear setting for the subsequent mood of the performance - even if the musicians would later subvert it.

Footnote to Incomplete Essay: My transformation from music fan to dance fan

The transition of my enthusiasm from music to theatre came, perhaps, in part, as a consequence of two remarkable gigs that I saw in the 1990s: Swans, touring on the back of their Love of Life album and The Young Gods around the time of TV Sky. Both bands conjured a mixture of furious violence and triumphant ecstasy, invoking a shamanistic mysticism (Swans' Michael Gira manipulates a theological vocabulary while The Young Gods embrace a lyrical paganism) that transformed the rock gig from a tired ritual into a celebration of life and community.

Against this, the business-as-usual of most rock'n'roll appeared tired and predictable: bands playing their hits to a group of fans who would sing along, or younger groups searching for an audience in half-empty basements, lacked the raw energy and the musical confidence Gira and Frans Treichler embodied. Memories of Michael Clark's collaboration with The Fall, and the appearance of a company I believe to have been DV8 dancing to Swans on London's South Bank, hinted that there were more interesting ways to experience the thrill of art transmitting beauty and meaning. I still attended gigs - although it was not until I discovered the Glasgow bands on the fringes of the city's visual art scenes that I recaptured the excitement - but even major events like Radiohead's big tent tour felt like shams.

I can date the exact moment when "contemporary dance" replaced rock music as my favourite art: Les Ballets C de la B, Tramway, performing VSPRS. Admittedly, the live band - an amalgam of gypsy and jazz musicians belting out a psychedelic adaptation of Verdi's Vespers - lent the choreography a recognisable rock'n'roll energy, but the terrifying movements of the dancers, the intensity of Alain Platel's intentions and the cast, drawn from the worlds of classical ballet, acrobatics and more difficult to define areas (my subsequent art crush Iona Kewney, who would later develop her own work that followed a similar rough beauty, was a visual artist who had found herself dancing in an attempt to capture her wild muse) did more than illustrate this heretical re-imagination of the seminal religious composition.

I followed the dancers into a trance. In under two hours, Platel fused music and movement - and a stunning, ragged, set - into a contemplation of both the dangers and pleasures of religious ecstasy. Reviewing the critical commentary of the time, it's clear that Les Ballets C de la B were controversial. There is a contempt for their style - they have been mocked as circus performers. But for me, the performance was a revelation: both of dance's ability to represent altered states (and provoke them), and the potential for theatre to be more dramatic, more vital and more vigorous than the supposedly primal energies unleashed by rock'n'roll.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Arts Poker: What we saw last week...

Welcome to the first weekly Vile Arts Poker Contest. The rules are simple, because I am making them up as we go along,and fixing them so I win. Today's competitors are Gareth K Vile and Eric Karoulla - reigning champion and young pretender. Welcome Eric.
Why thank you for having me, Gareth. I'm not entirely sure about this competition, sir.

The rules are that you get to pick three arts events that you have seen in the past month. And we pit them against each other, to see who saw the best stuff and has the best taste.

Ooh, sounds like fun! However, you are a judge and a competitor, so how is this fair? Best taste is subjective - going back to your favourite argument about radical subjectivity - but isn't it always about what we can get tickets to?
Don't mention that. Anyway, you can go first. Tell me about something you've seen, and give a quick, spirited description...

Sonata For A Man and A Boy was quite exciting! Not only the exploration of the relationship between a music teacher and a student, but also an examination of what it is to be an adult - in this case, a grown man - and what it is to be a child.
Saw that at the Macrobert, in Stirling. I think it's heading to the Traverse next month.
Okay, so did this have music in it? The sonata suggests that there would be some... and what did you like about it, apart from it mirroring our friendship - with me as the music teacher, of course.
Yes, there was live music - the two played solos and duets on the cello. It was quite fascinating to see how they went from two separate instruments, to playing on the same one, when their 'voices' were in harmony with each other.
So what was it all about? And how did the music reflect the story?

Well, the narrative started off with a grown man - played by Greg Sinclair - playing with wooden figurines, and asking "Are you ready?". This phrase was used multiple times for various things, like the beginning of the 'class'. The story itself didn't really develop as a linear evolution - it essentially showed moments where a man behaves more like a boy, and a boy behaves more like a man. At some point, the boy puts on the man's blazer and takes over the role of teacher. 

As for the music, it was a sonata played over and over again - like a practice tune at a music lesson. It helped the story move along mainly through the role reversal, since both of them prove equally capable of playing the intricate melody.
Well, as far as music and performance goes, I'm raising you Marc Brew's Fusional Fragments... Brew's superb choreography allied with Dame Evelyn Glennie. The dancers took their cues from Glennie's wild live drumming - she paced the stage like a wild, matriarchal deity, provoking heads to nod in the audience and casting Brew's ballet-influenced movements as an atavistic, tribal ecstasy.
For music, I will put in PSB - Public Service Broadcasting - who played in Nice 'n' Sleazy's last week. They were phenomenal. They didn't even speak! All and any sound was produced from either the synthesizer they had, or the assortment of instruments - including a banjo - they had brought along. 
Meanwhile, they didn't really have to perform anything aside from the music, since they had brought with them clips of films that matched to their War Room EP. Dark music, but it really sat well with its theme!
Also, do you actually know what 'atavistic' means, Vile?
It means a biological throwback - like the slight tail I have at the base of my spine. That's why i don't like performances that last more than an hour - it hurts if I sit on it...
If we are going pure music, I raise you Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers. Nearly three hours of loud, fast and rocking Japanese drumming. from the first professional Taiko group in the UK. They had their teacher over, so we got a few sips from the source - he pulled out this drum that was wired up to sound like a bass guitar, and got into a serious improvisation jam with his student.
That covers both of your shows I think - a student/teacher relationship played out in performance of music, some seriously heavy beats... and they explained a little about the music, too. Mugenkyo are beautifully tough, too: there is something almost military about their precision,and melodramatic in the way they switch drums and bang hell out of the beats. When the percussion starts to find a melody, it's astounding... I was transported to another place... tribal energy strikes again...
Meanwhile, I got to the Frock On Frock Off Sunday Bizarre, at the glue factory, which involved plenty of live art interaction, as well as screenings of three short films by Lock Up Your Daughters. It was quite a fun day, with varying tones, ranging from Foxy's (of Foxy & Husk) emotive miming to a chat about consent with Harry Giles. Also, present was Ian Nulty with his Sauna persona! 

Prior to the Olympiad, there was a Query Queery discussion, which allowed us to debate what it was to be a member of the LGBTQ society and whether or not the Q was relevant.
Interaction win!
I think you do win, and I regret missing that:Tranny and Roseannah were great fun on our show last week, and although I caught one night of the cabaret - with great acts - I had the feeling that it was part of a broader agenda.

It seems as if Frock Frock Off was uniting queer sexuality with what I would call "queer performance" - not in any sexual sense, but just in the sense of being other. It's an ambition project, and sending a day on it would be far more profitable than just one evening - when I reviewed the show, I felt that it was pointing to something. Whereas you went to the source.
Well, looks like I can't win even when I make up the rules. Your prize is... a delicious baked potato I made in the microwave.

Radio Hour Today! Listen in on Subcity!


Vile Arts coming atcha! All new guests, with a few old favourites: if it ain't on The Hour, it isn't happen', bra.

Say what? Who are our guests??

Haven't you got any? I thought you were talking to Miss Hell's Bell to talk about the Gatsby Club?

No, she is too busy to make it. She's put us on the guestlist for Saturday though!

Too busy for The Vile Arts? Ah... lucky I managed to round up an all star cast: starting at 6pm with... hang on... let me just do some emails...

You forgot? Or are you lying?
You haven't got guests, have you?

Yes! And a big thank you to the Matchbox Cineclub for saving my bacon. We'll be talking about their Halloween showing of one of my favourite films - if you don't include Russian black and white numbers - The Warriors!

Saving your bacon? What about my bacon? The warriors sounds exhilarating! So who are our guests?

Apart from the Mighty Cineclub? We have a guest who is not only a fixture on the Glasgow clubbing scene, but was voted as one of the 66 most influential people by Attitude Magazine... shame it wasn't 666 because that would mean the Halloween theme would be all sinister...

am I meant to google this and track them down or do you plan to tell me?
That doesn't really narrow it down, Vile.

It's Lady Munter. OMG, you are so not Glasgow... the star of the Fierce Ruling Divas Ball. You'd like that, it's at The Forbidden Gentleman's Club.

of course, I am so not Glasgow! I got here two months ago! And have spent most of those two months hanging out with you. Lady Munter sounds excitng! Also, how forbidden is this Forbidden Gentleman's Club?

More forbidden than your access to my other Facebook account, the one that has all the secret friends... but that's not all...we have some live music today...

Hey, you wanted me to find that account... you left it there on display!

I feel inclined to test this Forbidden Gentlemen's Club.

Live music? Why do you tell me this all at the last minute? Who's coming in to play for us?

It's Howie Reeve, an old friend of the show, promoter of Frost and Fire and a mean solo artist in his own right... well, not mean, as he is very lovely. I mean, he rocks...

yes, 'mean' like 'wicked' has a completely shifted meaning nowadays...
Is that all? Do you have any more guests hidden up your sleeve?

Plus, plus, plus... Acting Cubed are coming in to talk about their production of Autobahn, a sinister American tale of lives on the road.
Like I said... if it ain't on The Hour, it ain't happenin'... although it might literally be happening, I suppose, it ain't happenin', ya dig?

Vile, is there something you're not telling me?

New Queer Cabaret?

As part of Glasgay!'s restless programming - and emerging from the Buzzcut promotion stable - Tranny and Roseannah's cabaret at Rose and Grants reaffirms a core values of Glasgay!'s identity, an interest in presenting new work and new ways of understanding LGBTQ performance. Although Tranny and Roseannah's secret identities are familiar to Live Art audiences - they follow on from Fish and Game's successful double act in Strange Hungers in the fusion of drag humour and political intelligence - their cabaret format is far looser and their bill (on Thursday night) shows less focus and more eclecticism.

Tranny and Roseannah hold together the proceedings with their parody of TV reality show lifestyle gurus: their guests, Dame Fanny Dayglow and Foxy (from human-animal hybrid duo Foxy and Husk) come from diverse ends of the spectrum. Dayglow is a classic drag act - failed and delusional celebrity and sad old lady by turns - while Foxy's mimed meditation on relationship break ups is devoid of kitsch and manages to sail into emotive waters despite the comic appearance of a woman-dressed-as-a-fox.

As a cabaret evening, it does not hang together: Foxy's finale is far too intense after the playful makeover tease and Dayglow's parody of the celebrity audience, leaving Tranny and Roseannah slightly tongue-tied. The switch between moods is too abrupt - and Foxy's Solo is quite clearly not designed to be part of a vaudeville night, having even emotional power and serious content to stand alone.

Dayglow's routines are far more adaptable to the format - although the Talking Heads styling of her central monologue is filled with pathos and undermines the slightly easy and cheerful humour of the other two - and Tranny and Roseannah begin the evening with a very funny extended skit on fashion.

All of the acts are strong on their own terms - T&A feel like a work in progress but their banter is well developed and their co-dependant relationship touchingly and hilariously fleshed out - and Foxy smashes up popular cultural, oddly sexual fancy dress and an obsession with milk  and misery into a coherent, if sometimes meandering slap at romance and failure.

Dame Fanny Dayglow exults in kitsch humour - again, context is important, and getting a laugh from an old song that uses "gay" in a funny way is far more vaudeville than the rest of the evening. She also suggests that her fatuous faux celebrity routines hide a talented actor: again, that central monologue being both moving and wryly humorous.

If the structure isn't quite perfect, it is clear that T&A are trying to draw connections between queer identity and performance art - itself "queer" against the normative model of theatre - and the slightly awkward shifts in tone are reflective of a project in its early stages. Certainly, this is an imaginative tale on the potential of the cabaret format - a format that has been explored through Itsy's Kabarett in Edinburgh, or in Scunner's Spangled nights, but here given a more explicitly social and political intention.

In Part, Minimal

Kicking off the 2012/2013 Minimal Programme - a Glasgow Life innovation, programmed by the imaginative Sven Brown and now racing into its third year - a weekend of Arvo Part is a safe bet. Part fuses a post-modern fascination with the ancient - his stripped down arrangements evoke medieval sanctity - and a rare ear for a minimalist melody: while the Americans Reich and Glass took their cue from the driving grooves or urban anxiety, Estonian Part retreated into a pastoral religiosity.

Although his Stabat Mater is the headlining number in Saturday's performance, the first half presented the breadth of Part's interest. While some of his religious pieces struggle to emerge from a generic, gentle contemplation, his arrangement of St Patrick's The Deer's Cry uses the simple prayer to weave a complex web of sound, imitating the fervent desire of the song to be wrapped in God's protection. A version of Burn's My Heart's in The Highlands relocates Scotland to the northern border of heaven - despite the slightly ponderous rhyme - and Part's refusal of melodrama allows his choral compositions to reveal a compassionate, meditative Christianity.

Stabat Mater has the distinctive Christian mash-up of almost erotic brutality and kindness: the words follow the experience of the Blessed Virgin watching her son die, and the language more familiar from cheerful carols is twisted into a visceral vision of salvation through bloodshed.

The balance of three musicians - a trio of violin, viola and cello - against three voices echoes the words emphasis on juxtaposition: the musicians are more than accompaniment, conjuring the scene of the crucifixion through vivid interludes - although Part still avoids histrionics - as the singers long to share in Mary's almost ecstatic misery.

Part's connection to the minimalist movement is itself minimal: without the powerful pulse of the Americans, and avoiding even the romantic exultations familiar in much religious classical composition (even Scotland's James MacMillan will arrange his voices in rising harmonies of praise), Part returns to Bach's rigorous and precise depiction of the divine.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Old Thoughts on Nudity in Theatre - Still Vaguely Interesting, I am surprised to note

I did not understand quite why Anti-Christ upset cinephiles with its explicit violence and apparent misogyny. Anti-Christ is a movie, and protects its cast with the same trickery as TV does for Derren Brown and 1930s radio for ventriloquists. Hanging out on the cabaret and Live Art scenes, I regularly cheer along as real people pull things out of orifices, cut themselves, run about naked and drink blood. It’s a shame that The Daily Mail lacks an adventurous reporter: then they could have some real “BAN THIS FILTH” headlines. 
The place of nudity in live performance is contested. In Nic Green’s Trilogy, there is a great deal of female nudity that has worried some critics, especially in an avowedly feminist work. And in burlesque, does the majority presence of women as promoters and performers, audience and advocates really avoid the accusations of exploitation? Regulars at Tramway might be disappointed if they go home from a Belgian production without some flash of flesh, but does the status of art protect it from the censorship that governs other media? 
In Trilogy, the nudity is framed so that it deliberately anti-pornographic: similarly in burlesque, the stripping is justified by comedy and rhetoric of self-esteem and inclusion. These could be mere fig-leaves of distraction, hiding the more fundamental tensions that emerge when sexuality and society collide. 
Of course, these productions are aimed at adults, aside from the occasional absurd piece of programming as at Latitude, when Fancy Chance was booked into a daytime slot. It is telling, however, that Chance didn't perform her usual routines in front of the liberal parents and their untamed toddlers. And in London, burlesque nights are being expected to have the same licence as lap-dance clubs, a clear sign that for some bureaucrats, there is little difference. 
Inevitably, I defend the right of performers to undress, even cut themselves on stage. There might be the odd director or actor who is indulging their own exhibitionism, voyeurism or aggressive need to control, but to legislate against them is to exclude those who use nudity as a strategy to provoke and expose. 
At Itsy’s KabaretEmpress Shah did two acts that could reasonably described as self-harm: pouring molten wax on her stomach and inject a syringe into her arm. Despite the polish and finesse, which distracted from the brutality of these actions, they were part of a serious and profound comment on the nature of passion. When she toasted the audience with her own blood in a champagne glass, it had the symbolic intensity of a nightmare, and nailed the self-destruction that lurks behind so much romanticism.  
Nic Green, on the other hand, takes any erotic bite out of nudity, celebrating the body as shameless: some of the scenes in Bloody Town Hall are all the more innocent because the actors are naked. And many burlesquers recapture a charming sensuality, removing striptease from harsh commercialism and re-inventing it as humorous and sincere. I wouldn’t defend nudity purely on the grounds of its lack of eroticism, however. Nightshade, a production by Victoria that paired strippers and contemporary choreographers encouraged a sexual response, which made the accompanying messages - which varied from critiquing the male gaze through to more direct associations of eroticism with vulnerability or exploitation -  more immediate.  
Theatre can’t use its isolation as an excuse: performance happens in, and impacts upon society. But frankly, when the internet has such an exotic selection of material, and my local newsagent has two rows of magazines that boast SEX HUNGRY BABES, attacking the liberal arts is always going to be a token gesture. Sexual content does have a habit of warping perspectives, which is why it is so valuable as a strategy but also why the debate around it is frequently ill-informed or self-justification masquerading as reason. The relationships between the body, sexuality, consumerism, feminism and social values are endlessly fascinating, and it seems utterly appropriate that performance wants to map them. It does a far better job of it than philosophy or tabloid editors.

Entartet by Kai Fischer

Kai Fischer is perhaps most famous as the scenographer for Vanishing Point's productions: his use of a glass "fourth wall" gave Interiors, Saturday Night and Wonderland their claustrophobic intimacy, despite being designed and built on a massive scale. 

A regular artist with The National Theatre of Scotland, Fischer has become a rare thing: a set designer who is perhaps as well known as a director or actor. And while Entartet contains performances by Pauline Goldsmith, it is primarily an installation inspired by one of the most popular, and controversial art events of the twentieth century: the 1937 Exhibition of Degenerate Art.

The Degenerate Art exhibition was another rare thing - a spot of Nazi propaganda that blew up in their faces. It was made up of pieces seized from public galleries, mostly modern art, and was supposed to demonstrate how artists were destroying the moral fabric of the nation. Inevitably, it became a massive success - the Nazis then decided to ban the various artists from exhibiting at all. Having failed to prove their case, they used whatever bullying tactics they had as a government.

Fischer and sound artist Matt Padden took the text of the exhibition's guide book to create an audio guide to this new installation. A reminder from history about the sometimes awkward relationship between the state and art, Entartet offers lesson in the ways that art can still challenge and scare - and how censorship can be more than just a matter of aesthetics. 

Tickets for the performance element of Entartet are free, and can be booked by calling Traverse Box Office (0131 228 1404). Also available on the door up to one hour before the performance. EntartetOld Ambulance Depot, 77 Brunswick Street Edinburgh, EH7 5HS
Wednesday 7 and Thursday November 2012:
Installation 11am - 4.30pm / installation & performance 5.30pm - 8.30pm
Friday 9 and Saturday 10 November 2012 –
Installation 11am - 2pm / installation & performance  3pm - 6.30pm

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Ben Frost

Ben Frost makes marvellously masculine music. In the up-market environment of The Fruitmarket, his  glacial slabs of noise and juddering bass is oddly alienating and disorientating: despite the dynamic ebb and flow of sound, punctured by melodic piano and the crackle of electric synapses, By The Throat becomes less a visceral assault and more a soundtrack to a film that is never shown.

The format of the concert does Frost few favours: somewhere between the idolatry of a rock ritual and  the serious attention paid to a classical recital, the energy of Frost's soundscapes is sacrificed for a reverential recreation of an album that emphasises the sinister and cerebral. While his dedication to intensity is unquestionable, and the patterning of drones, samples and slashes of distorted guitar build towards climaxes that never resolve into simple thrash, Frost's reworking of the album adds little to the listening experience.

There are moments of stunning immediacy: the sporadic appearance of the drums, tribal and driving, give the washes of sound an abrupt focus, and the slow fade towards the end reveals how Frost uses volume as part of a subtle manipulation of the emotions. Passages evoke snow-covered tundra, or the desolation of forests over-run with wolves, and his sudden slips into sub-bass suggest a more vigorous and violent narrative. The structure is precisely calculated, the songs acting more as movements in a symphony built on noise and electronics - the snatches of crackle that animate the early passages are shocking and strangely melodic.

Ironically, the live performance is far more cerebral than the recorded version: there is almost a sense that this is an exercise in sound play - effectively rejecting the potential of a live show. Frost establishes his skill and the scope of his music and although it is rarely less than satisfactory, it struggles to elevate the source material into an immersive whole.

A Quiet Word with David Hughes

While people don't really believe a word a say, I do believe that Scotland could be on the cusp of a great dance revival. It's not so much the appointment of new artistic directors to the big two companies (Scottish Ballet and Scottish Dance Theatre) in the past year -but the diversity of companies knocking around the country. My own enthusiasm notwithstanding, and the efforts of the state to Get Scotkand Dancing, Scotland seems exceptionally  well-served with choreographers who are moving in distinctive, even unique directions,

David Hughes Dance is powered by the restless vitality of its artistic director, a former Rambert dancer and a man not given to resting on past glories. "After 26 years I've been around the block and am easily bored," Hughes admits. "So I am always trying to get something that excites me. If I have the right recipe this will come through to the audience."

In the past three years, Hughes has worked with Al Seed, the Big Man of Live Art and leader of Conflux, Glasgow's home for physical theatre, Christopher Bruce and Siobhan Davies (Bruce and Davies recreating work that they originally made on Hughes in his earlier career): and while the publicity and press around the company carefully avoids mentioning the C-word, Hughes' vision is contemporary in the sense of being modern, immediate and constantly evolving.

"The DHD vision is the performers," he continues. "We don’t provide choreographers with the kinds of performers they are used to working with." When Al Seed directed The Red Room, Hughes had him working with an Indian dancer: associate director Matt Foster comes from a b-boy background. For their latest project, The Chinaski Sessions, choreographer Kylie Walters was given five of Scotland's most dynamic male dancers. "These guys are a mixed bag of highly skilled performers from different disciplines." 

Yet Hughes' works are interested in more than just technique: from The Red Room through to Chinaski, dance has been put at the service of narrative - or, at the least, grand ideas. He explains that "Together with the right choreographer, the work transcends beyond technicality and performance: the movement becomes a vehicle for each person to come through. We all have our own different ways and we just get on with it."

The company's restlessness is reflected not just in the variety of ideas explored in their works - cannibalism, decadence, plague, sexual desire, masculinity - but the refusal to be contained by a simple definition. Hughes insists "I'm
random and spontaneous. We don’t set ourselves in any category but we exist in the periphery of dance and physical theatre." For Chinaski, "we are now returning to pure dance, but who can say what will happen next?"

"P.S." Hughes concludes. "Get ready for our next couple of years!"

Photography for Chinaski by Sally Cuthbert