PERFECT FOR A FRINGE
NZ Fringe 2015 [reviewing supported by WCC]
Presented by Kate Bartlett & Chris Tempest
at Thistle Hall, Wellington
From 5 Mar 2015 to 6 Mar 2015
Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 6 Mar 2015
OK. Reviewing? An opportunity for a moment of subjective objectivity where I become an expert eye, or pretend to be. Where I suppress what I don’t know (because I am supposed to be all-knowing), amplify what I think I do know, and question whether other things that I know are relevant to this exercise or not.
I know that when I was in the Northern hemisphere recently I became aware that a genre or category of performance had evolved that was simply being called ‘performance’. I understood that it was a kind of natural development of the collision between performance art and theatre. Instead of a stand-off and criticism of each by the other, the overlap where the two had been increasingly borrowing from the opposition had reached a kind of critical mass that needed a name. What better than to chop the word ‘art’ off one of the protagonists, because after all a lot of performance art was now being done by dancers, actors and other trained performers, and to simply call the outcome ‘performance’. There was no argument that performance was the central component shared between visual artists working with their bodies and the theatre fraternity. It makes very good sense. So that is what is happening, as I understand it, in the Northern hemisphere.
Has this genre – simply called performance – reached NZ yet? I’m not sure. I don’t hear practitioners using the term when asked how they categorise their work. Mostly I get responses such as ‘cross-disciplinary’ (and all the other hyphenated ‘disciplinary’ terms), ‘physical theatre’, ‘hybrid’, ‘fusion’ (these names are starting to become hackneyed or conventionalised), or ‘I don’t know’, ‘it’s not dance’, ‘it’s a kind of mix of different things’, etc.
Kate Bartlett and Chris Tempest are doing performance, in the Northern hemisphere understanding and use of the term (although in talking to Kate, she wasn’t aware of this stand-alone expression). They mix voice, text, song, objects, movement, dance, acting, etc., in a way in which no one performance style or element dominates.
I know Kate because I taught her in dance school many years ago. So I can’t suppress a potential bias here. A bias of respect. I know that she and her performance partner are also partners in real life. Is this relevant? It becomes so when I watched their work. The backyard they’ve sketched out in the Thistle Hall gallery space contains the intimacy of a couple who live together. The comfort of two people who are soft and considerate of each other. Who are in close physical proximity throughout much of the performance and who blend their vocal tones and physicalities in the way that people do who share a lengthy intimate connection. There are instances when I’ve experienced seeing couples perform together where I wonder how much they are aware that their relationship status creates an affect on the work, and whether this is intentionally being incorporated or is simply incidental? The genre they are working in – performance – requires a level of real life authenticity. The performers may digress into characterisation or ‘otherness’ at times – in this work, Chris and Kate have moments where they imitate birds observing and discussing humans – but fundamentally we get Kate and Chris as Kate and Chris. Their ‘Back-Yard Oddity’ has a quality of domesticity that is not being faked.
Back to the subject of reviewing. A summary description of the work is usually required. I am torn between detailing examples of what I saw – a backyard water slide down the length of the room for dive-bombing bodies, a podium on which to twitch and perch and comment on the world, a clothes-line above the audience on which to hang wet clothes, plastic buckets in which to drum up soap bubbles that are then face-dunked to make foam masks, a constellation of fairy lights on the roof that create a gently ethereal and contemplative climax to the proceedings – or reflecting on questions that the performance raises as it hovers between accessibility and enigma.
When a work mixes its various performance elements to such a degree, and intentionally rejects the heightened ‘show off’ or virtuosic achievements that specialisation in one form often aims at producing (although I must admit, Chris’s singing at one point hints at transcendence), what is left to engage with? In this type of work it is the underpinning ideas and the trigger of the underlying investigative question that initiated it. The programme says the central topic is ‘uncertainty’. The spoken dialogue points to uncertainty about big things mostly – death, time, aging, genetics, and other existential themes – in a world populated by small things reduced to the dimensions of a backyard.
Their Programme notes try to throw a bit more light on the thematic territory. We read: ‘This is a performance that explores the nomadic nature of our morality, the sometimes mutable state of our self-identified knowing and our attempt at exposing and hiding the shiftiness of our self-hood’. This explanation is not helpful and seems a bit overblown and pretentious in relation to the performance I witnessed. It highlights the chasm between the depth of understanding and familiarity that the performers have of what they’ve made and aspire to, and a virgin audience grappling to find comprehension and meaning. What we are invited to do is try to make sense of what we see while considering the possibility of symbolic and metaphoric readings of the work. A gymnastics of viewing that is particularly difficult for the untrained, or those who prefer a couch potato approach to spectatorship.
Hence, their’s is a poetics of construction and double-meaning. Image-based, skeletal and skittish. Quirky in tone. A small array of interconnected, quizzical moments loosely strung out along a time-line. Intimate and un-showy. There is a pragmatic changing of clothes at the start – the performers take off their shorts and t-shirts and don ‘costumes’ hanging on the line – which are more shorts and t-shirts. At the end they remove their everyday shorts and t-shirts, which are now drenched from watersliding, and hang them back up to dry. I enjoy the ‘performance’ of the suspended wet clothes and the idea or statement that these are skins drenched by the work. The self-referential inserts where the piece comments on itself exposes a preoccupation with questions of performance and performance-making. Is this the overriding theme? Have these artists shared any profound or interesting insights with me? This review attempts to indicate they have, enough to make me satisfied. I also liked the fairy lights.
So here, for me, we have an example of a style of work simply called performance with its poetic and eclectic mix of styles, a preoccupation with the theatrics of self-examination, a leaning towards understated profundity and an invitation for metaphoric readings and interpretation. Subjective to the extreme, but of interest to and totally appropriate and welcome in a fringe festival where this calibre and nature of experimental work – with its risks and uncertainties – is expected and desired.