Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: 'Project O - Voodoo' at the Lilian Baylis Studio, 16th January 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I thought I'd made a big mistake coming to see Project O's Voodoo. It had been a long day at work and I'd cleared my mind with a long run in the evening. So by 9pm at the Lilian Baylis Studio in Sadler's Wells I was pretty snoozy. Worse, I was told by the staff there that I couldn't even take a cup of tea into the show to help keep my eyes open.

Smash cut to 90 minutes later. I'm pepped up and full of beans, dancing my ass off in a hazy, dark and moodily lit room to a banging electro number. My route here involved smashing stuff up with a hammer, watching people writhe like maggots, a 1980s power ballad with balloon-based percussion and raising a shot glass to nothing in particular.

Project O are Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, with Voodoo billing itself as "a science fiction addressing the desire, confusion and responsibility of being a single subject who is also a symbol of many long-persecuted people". Generally, descriptions like that don't bode well, but Voodoo is actually pretty straightforward about what it's doing.

The show begins with a lengthy introduction as the audience are seated in groups of five, watching a slowly scrolling list of events projected onto a wall. These cover historical events like suffragette Emily Davison walking in front of the King's horse in the 1913 Derby, pop culture moments like the 1997 release of Men in Black, odd snippets of history like the 1998 Japanese release of the Sega Mega Drive, and deeply personal moments for the performers, like being informed their father has died or meeting their future husband.

The list encourages you to find links between the events, teasing various arcs of political and social evolution over mankind's history. Here the medical positions of Ancient Greek doctors sit side by side with the release of Spiceworld in 1997. But the chronology is cut off mid-stream when Hemsley and Johnson-Small emerge with hammers and smash it up.

I am not hard to please when it comes to entertainment, but even I was surprised how much I enjoyed the simple cathartic act of watching someone smash up a wall with a hammer. As they do this the air gradually fills with dust and small wooden shards litter the floor. The smashing of all this information indicates a clearing of the decks for the new - so it's appropriate that soon after both performers undergo a caterpillar-like transformation via white fabric chrysalises.

Soon after the performance space itself transforms, with the audience being asked to remove their shoes and stash their coats. It is at this point that I regret wearing clearly mismatched socks, having figured after my run that I'd only be wearing them for a few hours. Oh well.

This eventually leads into the audience lying on the floor, the performers solemnly telling us to listen to our heartbeats. As we do we're gently encouraged to feel its rhythm and the gently pulsing soundtrack. Gradually we move to our feet as the music picks up, and everyone begins dancing like they're a few shots in.

At this point, I'd usually toss in a warning for introverted audience members that you're fully expected to participate in the show - but if you turn up to an "immersive dance performance" you probably know what you're getting into. Me? I loved it. As I danced I felt myself shaking out the stress and fatigue of the day, enjoying getting into the rhythm.

The point of all this seems to be the creation of a new identity that understands the past but isn't defined by it. It often feels as if performers of colour - especially black performers - are encouraged to channel a mindboggling long and cruel history of racial atrocities into their work. It's an unfair burden and Voodoo attempts to chip some of that accreted shit away and rediscover yourself through physical motion and connection with your body's mechanics.

That it can be that and a damn good time is impressive stuff. I was enjoying myself so much that one of the assistants had to come and tell me to stop dancing as the performance was over. Jokes on her, I was dancing all the way home.

Project O - Voodoo is at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells until Saturday 18th January. Tickets here.

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