Friday, May 17, 2013

43rd Open Arts Cafe, ‘High Wire’ at the West London Synagogue, 16th May 2013

I’m beginning to think my sense of what’s weird and what’s normal is getting a bit skewed.   Last night I was chatting away during the interval of ‘High Wire’, an evening of storytelling and performance art.  Someone said to me; “isn't this so weird?!”.  This sounded instantly ludicrous to me, my concept of performance art being generally along the lines of butt-naked guys beating each other up in car parks, a woman theatrically urinating on stage and, just last Friday, someone slicing her arm open with a scalpel.  For people to consider what so far had been a relatively sedate and low-key night as "weird" made me a bit worried.

After all, so far this had been a night featuring shapeshifting homicidal badgers, trippily manic anecdotes about Hungarian composers and a one man cinema band that had me screeching into a microphone to create a tortured soundscape.  Not too shabby.

But, this was a bit less chaotic and buttoned down than most events of this kind I attend, though that’s not necessarily a criticism.  While I’m not familiar with the Open Arts Cafe, the fact that’s been going for at least 5 years gives it a certain stature.  The location added to the feeling of gravitas; the West London Synagogue is a beautiful building and the performance space has amazing wrought iron lamps and wood panelled walls.  But the weight of authority seeps into the walls of religious buildings - it’s hard to feel subversive when everything around you emanates thousands of years of tradition.

Sarah Rundle
After a friendly introduction by Maya Levy (one of the creators of the Open Arts Cafe) we were off.  First up as Sarah Rundle, telling us a story called Kachi-kachi Yama - a Japanese folktale that involves a homicidal shapeshifting tanuki (Japanese badger-y sort of thing).  There was a spot of ultraviolence followed by involuntary cannibalism, all topped off with a heaped serving of good old murderous revenge.  The idea is apparently to perform this in schools.

Despite the brutal violence (which means it's got a hell of lot in common with Western folktales) Rundle keeps the tone light-hearted.  She exploits the ridiculousness of the situation, with frequent asides to the audience that keep us engaged.  The story is illustrated with some great drawings by Rundle, which go a long way to keeping the tone light and demonstrate a knack for quick characterisation.  

My only complaint is that I think it's a waste to tell a story about tanuki without involving their enormous, expandable testicles at every opportunity .   I have no idea if this awesome super-power features in the original tale, but ever since watching the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko I’ve felt there’s a definite lack of testicle based combat in modern culture (SERIOUSLY CLICK HERE TO SEE THIS I'M NOT KIDDING).  I guess perhaps teachers and parents might frown upon someone coming to their school and telling a tale of supernatural badgers with weaponised scrotums, but I bet the kids would dig it.  After all, in Japanese schoolyards children sing: “Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa / Kaze mo nai no ni / Bura bura” (translation: "Tan-tan-tan", Your balls sway nicely. / Though the wind stops blowing / They swing, swing, swing').  

Alys Torrance
Up next was Alys Torrance, performing a spoken word piece called ‘My Dad Sucked Lemons with Bela Bartok’.  Torrance told us she’s usually accompanied by a professional recorder player from County Cork, but as she was unavailable the audience had to fill in, by tootling a call and response to the Blue Danube Waltz.  Torrance, like Rundle before her, is clearly a born storyteller, and cuts a pretty striking figure in business suit and Converse.

She tells the story of her Dad, born in Hungary in 1910, and leaps backwards and forwards in time at the slightest whim.  The chronology gets a little confusing at times, we jump from anecdotes about him, to re-enactments of conversations, to an impression of him proudly explaining the longevity of his sartorial choices.  As a narrative I don’t think it quite works, the through line of the story was just outside my grasp.  But as an evocation of someone I’ve never met it’s quite successful, Torrance rapidly sketches out a portrayal of a magnetic personality, adding tiny well-observed flourishes to her performance that make this a piece jampacked full of affection.

The final act before the interval was Joe Le Tropic & His One-Man Cinema.  The performance consisted of Joe playing a variety of musical instruments to a projection he'd created.  Unfortunately as I was sitting on the wrong side of the room I didn’t get a good view of the projection, but managed to see enough to recognise some neat graphic design and interesting visual imagery.  He’s a nicely charismatic figure, with enough of a sardonic Northern twang to pull off the Anton LaVey look.  His music is, appropriately, cinematic, - if you close your eyes you can just about imagine the Tarantino film this would be scoring.

Joe Le Tropic
It’s the final number in his set that’s the most fun.  He sets up a quick sound loop, then stands up and begins heading towards the crowd, microphone in hand.  I am an absolutely terrible singer so I'm a bit scared he’s going to ask me to sing something.  Fortunately (for me at least) he picks on my friend, who gets a microphone jammed in her face and is asked to make some sounds.  On seeing her nervous and bewildered look I’m glad it wasn’t me that was picked first, and she makes a quavering “mmmmnn” into the mic.  Joe comes to me next, and asks me to make a noise into the microphone.  I let out a yodelling, high-pitched “WAAAAAAARGH!” at the top of my lungs.  He moves into the crowd again, getting different sounds from others, and gradually building up a soundscape.  Only myself and a woman in the front row make a distinctive sound, and every few bars, out of the looped murmuring nervousness that’s built up I hear my distinctive “WAAAAAAARGH!” popping up in the mix.  It tickled my funnybone more every time I heard it.  Good stuff!

After the interval (where I’d guzzled delicious free crackers and guacamole) there were two performances by Ana Esmith.  In the first she emerged wearing a wedding dress, looking quite fragile and girlish, hesitantly singing Aretha Franklin’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’.  Her voice is halting and nervous, her body language introverted and withdrawn.  As the song builds up she plucks a man from the crowd and transforms from timidity into assertive temptress.  She instructs the man exactly what to do and where to touch her.  Judging by his red face and rictus grin it’s pretty damn clear who’s in control here.

Ana Esmith
There’s a second half later along similar lines.  This time, rather than in appearing in bridal gear she wears thick coke-bottle glasses and a dowdy, formless tan raincoat.  She grabs the microphone and begins to sing - again launching into “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”.  The way she performs it makes me think of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or perhaps Mulholland Drive.  An image of wounded and vulnerable femininity; a woman numbly going through the motions of sexiness.

But once again she flips things around, grabbing the same man out of the audience, and with a porcelain hand jutting from her sleeve instructs him on where to touch her.  This culminates in her ripping her coat open to reveal an enormous thatch of pubic hair, topped off with a heart g-string.  She takes her porcelain hand and, to the gasped strains of the song begins to frantically get herself off.

It’s a nice bit of role reversal, and cocks a a bit of snook at the Aretha Franklin.  Who exactly is making who feel like a natural woman here? The huge tangle of pubes makes you wonder just what the hell a ‘natural’ woman is supposed to be anyway.  It’s damn funny stuff. 

Sandwiched between these two performances was the excellent Silvia Ziranek, performing a piece entitled ‘mORe rISk”.  I’d seen Silvia performing at LUPA last month and having very much enjoyed that I was anticipating seeing her here.  In a similar way to the last time I saw her, it was as if the performance had started even before she’d appeared.  Laid out on gold mats was an exciting collection of ephemera.  On them lay objects ranging from bananas, to a tiny globe, to dusting brushes, to tiaras, looking like prizes in a particularly exciting raffle.

Silvia Ziranek
As Silvia emerged from behind the curtain she began reeling off a staccato, slightly chopped up monologue.  It had a strange semi-humorous tone to it; the jokes weren't exactly funny, but told as if they were.  This has a strange effect on the audience, who aren't given many cues as to how to respond.  There's an element of clowning in Silvia’s work, underlined by the bright colours and surreal mismatched props.  It suggests that something funny is happening, but it’s underscored with a dead-on seriousness that catches the laugh in your throat.

Everything she does underscored by her femininity, which is presented both as an exaggeration (wearing multiple aprons and multiple tiaras) and as something authoritative and slightly mystical.  As her outfit gradually transforms over the performance she begins to look increasingly shamanic, the bright colours, hints of gold and giant beak poking off her head turning her into an ersatz Mayan priest.  The fact that what she says doesn’t immediately seem to follow any grammatic or narrative rules might well be the point. After a while the slightly disconnected phrasing seems as integral a part of her performance as her carefully poised movements.  I’m not entirely sure what any of this means, but there’s something indefinably powerful going on here, which builds in intensity as she interacts with objects and the performance space.  Neat stuff.

Up next was a slightly more literal transformative performance.  A woman changing from pouring drinks to pouring her lyrical soul out on stage.  Lovelace, who’d been running the bar downstairs in the basement for the night took to the stage and played us some airy folk-pop about her life.  She’s got a lovely clear voice and creates a pleasant set of looping soundscapes.  The highlights of her set are songs about rural Devon, with one effectively melancholy song about the tors on Dartmoor and her memories of a best friend, and another about walking down the beach and staring up at the red cliffs.  That one particularly impressed me, as I’ve got some happy memories of walking along the beach in Budleigh Salterton hearing the waves crash against the pebbles.

And with that it was over.  It was a slightly more sedate night of performance art than I’m used to, but as I said before, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Then again, the concept of the night being ‘risk’ seemed a little silly as the night went on.  Even though it takes a serious courage to get up and perform in front of crowd, but for a show that billed itself as wanting to explore “artistic, emotional and adventurous risks”, nothing here felt genuinely risky.  I’m not saying you need buckets of bodily fluids and rampant nudity to make a night out worthwhile, but this was perhaps a little too restrained for my liking.  Having said that I had a great time and I'm glad I came.  There’s a pleasant community atmosphere at the Open Arts Cafe, and I'd love to come again.

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