Thursday, 14 April 2016

VOID Dramaturgy: V/DA (Various Dance Artists) @ Tramway

VOID is a new dance and audio-visual collaboration by V/DA based on JG Ballard's Concrete Island, a tale of survival, skewered topography and inner space. VOID unleashes gymnastic-infused choreography trapped within a mesh of a self-generating video landscape.

‘As we drive across a motorway intersection, through the elaborately signalled landscape that seems to anticipate every possible hazard, we glimpse triangles of waste ground screened off by a steep embankments. What would happen if, by some freak mischance, we suffered a blow-out and plunged over the guard-rail onto a forgotten island of rubble and weeds, out of sight of the surveillance cameras?

Modern technology offers an endless field-day for any deviant strains in our personalities. Marooned on a traffic island, we can tyrannise ourselves, test our strengths and weaknesses, perhaps come to terms with aspects of our characters to which we have always closed our eyes.’ 
J.G Ballard, Introduction to Concrete Island (1974)
Dancer/choreographer: Melanie Forbes-Broomes (V/DA)
Set/AV design: David Bernard (85A/Pointless AV)
Costumes/ Performance Direction: Bex Anson (85A) 

What was the inspiration for this performance?
The performance is based on JG Ballard's Concrete Island, a 1974 novel part of the Urban Disaster trilogy, but the piece started its journey with an altogether quite different text: No Exit by Sartre.

Melanie Forbes-Broomes had been exploring that play for movement research, with themes such as entrapment, psychosis and troubled characters providing a good platform for the unique combination of dance, gymnastic and physical theatre skills she develops with her company V/DA.

Meanwhile in a parallel artistic universe, Dav Bernard had spent the best part of a decade fine tuning a video system that produces constantly evolving (generative) video compositions in a geometric style specific of the obsolete equipment that produce them. Whilst highly unstable and near impossible to reproduce, the imagery created can be controlled in a way that enable the use of the projector as stage lighting and follow the performer's evolutions.

With roots in club Vjing followed by an established practice as AV designer for theatre and circus, Dav had been looking for a performer to inhabit his glitchy video environments.

These two were matched by Bex Anson, who had worked closely with Mel as V/DA's scenographer and with Dav on many projects including 85A and Bassline Circus to name a few (they are also married...)

As the starting point for a new collaborative performance piece, we thought that an existing text would provide good launch pad for our combined artistic propositions and we set off to continue Mel's exploration of Sartre's existentialist play.

Set in a plain room with baroque furniture and featuring dialogue-heavy interaction between several lead protagonists, it failed to inspire us on a scenographic and dramatic level. We set off to look for a new text with similar psycho-dramatic intensity and a focus on a confined claustrophobic setting. 

Our friend and 85A colleague Pete Sach suggested Concrete Island: the tale of an architect who crashes his jaguar off the motorway embankment and gets marooned on a traffic island, subsequently having to fight for his survival. With its decaying post-industrial environment and single lead character going through a physical as well as emotional journey, the text provided us with a perfect playground where movement and projected shapes started to gel with ease: the traffic island's architectural features and the surrealist inner space explorations were matched to the video's signature patterns whilst Robert Maitland's existential dilemmas written in dense and factual style transferred well into character direction and the basis for physical routines.

Ballard's writing style and its association with experimental literature, postmodernism and dystopia also inspired our approach to the piece's soundtrack, selecting across genres to include experimental noise, glitch and industrial, as well as softer naturalistic production methods (like field recordings) used to create cinematic atmospheres.

Before we knew it, a text that was meant to act as a basic impetus for our tentative collaboration became a tight framework for the performance's narrative arc and aesthetic codes. Of course, even with our best intentions, you'd be hard pushed to actually follow the Concrete Island story on viewing the piece - we couldn't make narrative dance if we tried!

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
All three of us have practices rooted in collective production and authorship, and we're also partial to working in larger teams. With a healthy network of potential collaborators at our disposal (performers, makers, musicians) it was counter-intuitive to keep all the devising and performing between such a small group - yet we did take this decision as we wanted to dedicate as much time as possible on the development of our own interpretation of the Dance+AV idiom, and knew we had the skills amongst ourselves to take on the production's remaining creative duties including: choreography (Mel), performance direction and costume (Bex), sound and set design (Dav).

As our initial proof of concept started to gather positive feedback, we took the unusual (for us) step to enlarge the team with an experienced creative producer (Steve Slater) who will help to promote the piece in the relevant artistic networks and bring longevity to the project.

How did you become interested in making performance?
Melanie: I trained as an artistic gymnast before studying physical theatre and contemporary dance. I have had an interest in making performance as teenager but it was during my training at dance school where my interest was propagated. I had the opportunity to produce solo, duo and group pieces throughout my four years of studying, here I had access to traditional theatre spaces where I was able to present work to the public. 

It was also during this time I created a small dance company of six called Symposium Productions. We worked on creating movement generated by theatrical facial expressions and voice, shaping and moulding the space as one singular entity. Our works where performed at Edinburgh Fridge, Brighton Fringe, Dance Live Festival and The Lemon Tree. Being a part of performance festival and watching lots of work urged me to continue making work and seeking fresh ways to generate movement vocabulary.

Bex: I studied painting, then started the Lowsalt Gallery that featured regular happenings.

For GI 2008, Lowsalt co-produced and presented Raydale Dower's and Judd Brucke's The Secret Agent - the Joseph Conrad tale about blowing up time, performed with music, chorus and puppetry through Glasgow city centre's back alleys at dusk. This triggered a complete shift away from the visual and into the performative. As 85A took over from Lowsalt, it lead me to work as a performance director with circus and immersive theatre, and I furthered my training in these fields, notably with Phillipe Gaullier in 2014-2015.

Dav: I studied product design and built experimental musical instruments for stage performance, then specialised in reactive and immersive video environments. I trained on the free party circuit and ended working in theatre and opera.

As my younger self, I was never really interested in performing, but was passionate about making in whatever form: sounds, images, structures, events and it took me a while to realise that the process of making interested more than the final result. I had finally discovered performance and connected with the world of stagecraft, though I always think that real life theatre (a motorway, a riot) will hold my interest better than a stage production. This was probably one of the influences that fed the Situationist streak in the work I liked to do with 85A.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yes and No…
For VOID, both the physical and video performance are initially devised in an improvised manner, bouncing of a new music track with and a few keywords as mood direction, this feels very instinctive and brings a brilliantly immediate sense of connection between the dancer and the video (that is produced in real time). 

This is quite typical of a certain type of ad hoc performance that we are used to doing, though not for a project with a long funded lead in like this one.

Every rehearsal is documented on video, as Melanie cannot get a full sense of the graphic composition around her whilst on stage, it's only through cycles of practice, filming and playback that she can tune her movements to the imagery that effectively becomes here on-stage partner in this solo piece. This awareness is new to the way she's been previously working.

All three of us review and critique each take, and decisions are taken as a group, as to which combinations of movement, sound and imagery work together and how to develop them. We also archive everything in a system that allows us to reference back to previous experiments, in order to quickly find again our best attempts. 

The video archive format is a must for our collaborative creative process, thought we have pushed its scope on this project.
This piece is devised for either small theatre or indoor performance spaces, with a seated audience, which is typical of dance productions. But we've all got experience and interest in showing work in site-specific settings, and with varied blurred levels of separation between audiences and performers. Although the initial location for VOID is somewhat less adventurous than some of the previous shows we've put on with 85A, we're hoping that this piece might eventually get presented in a setting that echoes Concrete Island's story: under a motorway, in a car park or a loading bay... watch this space!

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
We are very pleased of the effect we created in combining Melanie's choreography and performance with the scenographic elements: some scenes have hard-edge rippling shapes overlay over the dancer's pattern-clad disjointed body that will make your eyes pop, others solely rely on the physical and emotional feats. Adding to these visual perspective experiments and we hope that we will give a good interpretation of the Ballardian Inner-space, and its original Crusoe-esque inspiration.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Physical size of our show:
This is our first production and we're still to find our public, also this work is about survival and feeling a primal energy so we like the idea that the audience will sit close to each other and close to the performer, so we designed the show to look big in small venues, and will fit in theatre and non-theatre venues alike.
We think VOID has potential to excite audiences outwith the typical theatre-going audiences with high skill and production values but easily tourable. We are hoping to present it in dance festivals but also at physical theatre and media art events.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
The Pollokshields glitch-narrative dance+AV tradition, of course.

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