Wim Vandekeybus’ What the Body Does Not Remember

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Last week we went to Wim Vandekeybus’ What the Body Does Not Remember. First created in 1987, Sadler’s Wells was able to get a new short stretch of this performance, which looks at the body under intense strain.

It’s been 28 years since its creation, a time when the the financial markets had just been deregulated, the Big Bang happening in 1986. The image of these newly liberated city traders working avariciously is something has left an indelible mark on our collective memories. This behaviour – of working in in union but for oneself – is both a social phenomenon that occurs today and lies at the heart of What the Body Does Not Remember.

The dancers move in a way that conveys a sense of morally ambivalent toward one another – they exist symbiotically but it feels as though they would happily overthrow one another if only they could. In one dance, persistent stealing of each other’s clothes is simultaneously both a ‘swap’ and clearly opportunistic theft. It is also carried out seamlessly, beautifully and comically!

The suggestion of symbiosis also evokes a number of other precedents: Godfrey Reggio’s long shots of commuters in Koyanaskatsi; or the lonely but adjacent characters in an Edward Hopper painting.

To take the Hopper reference further, there’s also an interesting feeling created by the constant flow of performers moving on and off stage. Far from being frustrating, the stream of dancers intensifies the performance leading one to believe that the ‘action’ continues off-stage and that the stage itself is a viewfinder of the best and most intense action.

Golem, Young Vic

908fe93f866a4910a038b473984bd4fcIn 2012, a product designer called Paulo Cardini, delivered a TED talk critiquing society’s culture of technology-driven multitasking. He was irritated with being constantly bombarded with mobile phone updates; the supposed ‘must have’apps that seem to ask ‘how did you ever cope before?’. Constant multi-tasking, he argues however, makes us quite the opposite: an unfocussed ADHD generation, entirely beholden to our phones!

Watching 1927’s production of Golem at the Young Vic recently, I was reminded of Paulo’s talk. The play, adapted from a Gustav Meyrink novel, has a clear premise: supposedly benign technological advancement, left unchecked, mutates quickly from servant to master.

Here, the protagonist Robert, whose job is to ‘back up the backup’, is a geeky young man held firmly in technology’s grasp. An old schoolfriend of his is an inventorand continually dreams up ludicrous new products; an apt little nod to the internet start-up industry, whose corporate giants often started as obsessive one-man outfits.

In this case, the latest invention is Golem: a man ‘made of clay who can only obey’. The first buyer is the hapless Robert. As the play progresses, Golem is replaced by Golem 2.0, and so on. Total subjugation is quickly left behind: ‘Wouldn’t Robert suit those yellow shoes?’Golem subtly suggests at one point. Things only get worse.

However, in contrast to its doomsday-esque message, Golem is a continuous visual delight; five ‘live’actors are supported by a projected animated set. To this is added an animated supporting cast including the eponymous Golem; who, at times is impossible not think of as real. The visuals are vibrant and beautifully executed, drawing from sources such as Monty Python, Constructivist photomontage, and Quentin Blake illustrations. In fact, one imagines that Roald Dahl would have liked this play very much.

The interaction between real and virtual is seamless and the opportunity for humorous interaction is not lost: in one scene, Robert’s grandmother, with whom he lives (another Dahl trope!), polishes a projected photo of her late husband; in response to the duster, his moustache dances off-screen in an especially Pythonesque manner.

More interestingly, the continual interaction between virtual and real evokes modern society’s actual state of being: throughout the last century, and growing exponentially, we seem to spend more and more time in the ‘virtual’; in the elsewhere. Cinema, television, computers, phones, Skype and Facebook occupy much of our attention and take us to places without any need for us to be in the present. The real world becoming only a supporting character in our lives.

And, we do so complacently: we don’t really pay much attention to alleged privacy invasions from Google, or whether a child might have made our iPhone. Our moral scrutiny it seems plays second fiddle to an obsession with shininess and an apparent insecurity over ‘what the Jones’might already have’. How Bernays would have smiled.

Golem might look a bit Aardman (kudos to 1927 for managing to create such a play without becoming ‘preachy’). But don’t be fooled, Golem has a series message. You were warned!

 

 

Streetlife

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In Death & Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs praises the humble pavement: its place in the city, she argues, is crucial to thriving urban life. Or, put another way, disregard for the cultural value of the pavement (and by extension the street) is profoundly damaging to cities.

That 20th Century urban planners looked to parkland as the ‘lungs of a city’ is to miss an oppertunity, she says, claiming that the isolation and often over-prescriptive design of a park does little to nurture ordinary city life. Given that many of us will be able to cite bleak urban parks, which often feel threatening to walk through, there is much in Jacobs’ argument to find convincing.

A recent trip to Porto attests to the fact that urban leisure and social exchange can successfully take place on the pavement. As one of the oldest cities in Europe, Porto is accordingly made up of small winding streets punctured by little informal squares or crossroads; the city is also built on the precipitous rocky banks of the Douro river estuary. Two factors that leave little opportunity for large public parks.

However, rather than discourage vibrant city life, these restrictions result in a city with intense civic culture, focussed on the pavement. Many factors influence this liveliness, not least the climate; however, it is worth remembering Danish cities such as Copenhagen or Aarhus demonstrate that cold weather does not necessarily discourage healthy street culture. So what other ingredients in Porto contribute its successful street life?

To begin with, Porto is relatively compact and dense: approximately 5200 inhabitants per kilometre. Physically, this is embodied in tightly packed streets with small shops at street level and apartments above. Street fronts are active, creating direct supervision of the street from the home, shop or café; and vice versa too of course.  What’s more, buildings generally house a diverse population: families, couples, the elderly, children, as well as tourists. This results in busy streets throughout any given day, which in turn makes what could otherwise be dark canyons, feel safe and inviting.

However, where feasible, pavements have been as generously sized as possible (especially when considered in relation to the city’s dense grain). Cafes and restaurants invariably extend into these pavements: at one end as grandiose and permanent fixtures and, at the other end, just as a few plastic chairs or a bench perhaps.

Street life is also encouraged at municipal level. The surface finish of most large pavements is treated as one might a building’s elevation: that is, with careful consideration for material and detail. And in implying such respect, the status of the pavement is raised to that of a genuine civic environment.

But what of transferability to the UK? Ultimately it is hard to reverse prevailing trends and policy. Central government, for example, is currently driving the creation of suburban ‘garden cities’; and in many major cities there is a move towards privatised ‘quarters’ and ‘villages’, be they covered (as in Westfield) or open air (as in Liverpool One). Ultimately, a regressive move evoking the zoning principals of 20th Century urban planning.

Neither of these moves is likely to encourage unplanned social activities or facilitate the passive supervision that the occupants of a street in Porto might naturally provide. Nor are the owners of malls likely to look favourably on the unauthorised ownership of streets by little plastic chairs. Shame really – it’s our loss.

Golem at the Young Vic

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Jesammy Calkin on the new 1927 production ‘Golem’ at the Young Vic: “It is almost impossible to impart in words the magic of a 1927 show. A thrilling combination of animation, live performance, theatre and music, it is multimedia in the true sense of the word, but with none of the slightly clinical nuance that word implies. The shows are dark and fruity, wildly inventive, fiendishly skilled and with a great sense of joy and purity. The staging harks back to the silent-film era”

Now, combined with the setting – the Young Vic – this federation of performance and spatial experience should provoke a really interesting conversation between ‘the real’ and ‘the virtual’. Might also be a practical way making sense of Patick Keiller’s ‘The View from the Train’!!

 

The Megastructure

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The postman is at your door.
‘Where are you?’ you say.
‘At your door.’ they reply.
‘But what can you see?’
‘The entrance of a cinema’. Less sure now.
A complicated series of instructions follows. This involves level changes, retracing steps and the use of at least one lift. Eventually your post arrives.

Sometimes your friends come to visit you.
‘Where are you?’ you say.
‘By a health club next to a large chimney.’ they say happily.
‘Stay on the line,’ you tell them, ‘I’ll come out and search for you.’

It hasn’t always been like this. You used to live on a street in a house, with a number. Number 32. However, the houses were numbered sequentially along each side, and even this invited confusion. People like the familiar; postmen especially like it. At least this house was on terra firma though.

Living high up in the frame does have its advantages. It’s exciting for one thing. You can stand in its long corridors, squint your eyes a bit, and pretend that the stranger in the distance is an alien. Maybe they are. It is far away.

When it’s sunny you can climb to the summit of the arches, where the sky is open and once again visible. Up there you pretend you’re still a child atop a climbing frame or large tree. The shouting and grunting far below is almost lost.

Money! It used to be cheap to live here and to some it was in fact free. It doesn’t seem to be so cheap anymore. Groups of young architects and designers walk the corridors, sartorially elegant in expensive clothes and dark rimmed glasses. Your hear them say they really like it here and that the building is really clever. Last week the hot water stopped working though.

Each Monday the architects leave empty bottles of exotic looking wines ready for recycling. Labels, full of bright bucolic optimism, look up at you as you walk past. ‘There is another world out there’, they seem to tell you. All you can see is the floor of deck seven above.

You often wonder how many people live in the building. You’ve tried to count front doors, but the complexity of the layout always defeats you. You have overheard the architects saying it’s 2000 people. ‘That little?’ you think ‘Must be more.’

During large sporting events some of the other residents become very patriotic: large St. George’s flags festoon the otherwise sparse balconies. Then, in winter, some of the shops on the ground floor erect a small Santa’s grotto. The smell of mulled wine and mince pies wafts upwards through the maze of corridors. The seasons though are otherwise unrepresented in the building. Autumn’s multicoloured mournfulness and spring’s bloom don’t get beyond the perimeter.

You’ve decided it’s time to leave; to get out and to get away. You speak to an estate agent to get their confidently jargoned advice. You nearly faint when you hear how much your house is worth!

Stuart McKenzie

Made in 1885, 1984 and 2014

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You get up, pat down your hair and put on some clothes. You go downstairs stopping at the garden gate to fix a dislodged brick on the front wall. The Victorians, you think, really can’t be surpassed in creating an architecture both poor in quality and stubbornly long-lasting. As you walk away, the brick shears in half.

A handful of steps later you are at the corner of your street, two thirds of the way to human rights violations, financial meltdowns and a comparison of the 10 best autumnal quiches: the Saturday papers. You add some Greek yogurt and spinach from the grocer next door. On the way back you pick up some cement mortar from the builder’s merchant.

Back in sight of your home, your neighbour spies you and comes out to chat. Smiling and laden with blackberry jam you re-enter your house and make breakfast. A little remorsefully you pull out the Money supplement and place it next to the cat litter. If you were more honest, Travelwould go there too – we all have to keep those little flickers of wanderlust alive though don’t we?

Later in the day, you need to go a little further: a week spent tapping keys doesn’t do much for the physique so you get on your bike and head to the gym. It’s a nice day; you go not to the treadmill but to the open marshes nearby and warm up with a run along the towpath. How have you never noticed that disused factory before? Note to self: find out its story.

Later still, removing cement mortar from between your toes, you get ready to go out. A friend is having you over for dinner and you’re also keen to get back a book you loaned them in 2006. This time you walk past the parade of small shops, straight to the high street to catch a bus. Another neighbour is on the bus and you sit next to them speculating conspiratorially about which artisanal burger chain is likely to move into a newly vacant shop.

(originally posted on my personal blog in October 2014)