Breath (taking)

by Sara Muthi

BREATHING OUT BREATING IN consisted of a stream of seamlessly curated image-making moments by six artists in one space, utilising the gallery as one canvas. Although loosely choreographed with a path and pit stops, the actions of the artists carried a genuine intensity to each image-making-process that, quite literally, took my breath away. While suffering from a persistent cough I had been conscious that I did not want my lung’s noises to take away from any moment of the performance. Ironically the subject of breathing was the backdrop to this event in the form of Nigel Rolfe’s Breath exhibition. The images exhibited were a result of Rolfe’s blowing of pigment on paper, an effect that had given an ease of lightness to them, literally that of breath. Two thin pins held up each work, giving the impression that a gush of wind could peal them off the wall at any moment.

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The performing body is a complex construct and its use and manipulation of materials is integral to the analysis of every performance. However, one common factor constitutes all performance; a constant becoming without arrival. The pinned images have no sense of finality, only pause and this is reflected by each performance.

Playing a muted accordion Rolfe quietly interrupted the stillness of the room through the audible breath and slight whistle of the damaged instrument, mimetic of the subject matter at hand. Rustling deep into a white paper bag as if scrabbling to find something, a white powdered rope emerges and begins to wrap itself around Rolfe’s waist, contrasting white powder over his iconic black suit.

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Nigel Rolfe

Paula Fitzsimons interrupts the space as she rips open the garbage bag she held, at which point a pile of stuffed animals are dropped centre-stage. Two bodies dressed in business formal attire engaging in acts seemingly not suitable for their visual status or age range— playing with dirty rope, caressing and gutting stuffed animals — creates a juxtaposition between action and expectations of self-representation. As Rolfe flings the rope anti-clockwise around himself it becomes undone. A third character enters the moment, Jade Blackstock, dressed equally as well, carrying a plate and setting it down alongside a generic bottle of milk. Finally free from the rope, Rolfe smoothly takes off his jacket and intentionally places it at the rope’s end. His spatially considerate and material based actions came to a halt yet did not disappear. Traces embodying images did not act as finalities to the action, only an intermission to give way to the next sequence of images to come.

Blackstock carries a white sack between her legs as it leaks a blood red juice, walking with difficultly and determination. A loud scream comes from her, a scream of something somehow unseen by us, yet her composure is neat, her posture is perfect, undeniably poised. An incompressible action occurs as Blackstock pours out the bottle of milk atop the shallow saucer, surely realising the flow of milk does not match the depth of her bowl and very quickly overflows. Blackstock lies down at the height of intrigue to make way for Alice Jacobs.

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Alice Jacobs (Left), Jade Blackstock (Right)

Dressed in a black dress with a plunging décolletage Jacobs’ head is leaned back, raspberries seem to over-fill her mouth. Her posture is in check yet her demeaner seemed drunk; another juxtaposing action against the sense of her dress. In her hand a disco ball rocks back and forth on a string, dropping suddenly only to be shattered and picked up piece by piece. Held in the crook of her arm, she stares past the audience into a void. Suddenly she’s gone leaving no trace but the bobbles of fruit which fell around her feet. While no image was left by Jacobs, her intensity of stare left an impression that carried through the atmosphere as Blackstock simultaneously stands.

Blackstock did something interesting with her performance of becoming carried through into a moment in which it attempted still life. Maintaining a sumo stance she allows herself to be weighed down by the bleeding sack she clutched to her chest; a pose that made my own thighs weak just witnessing. Breathed out of this performance was a compelling contrast of liquid materials, an image  highlighting leakage and overflow.

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Paula Fitzsimons (left), Jade Blackstock (right)
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Jade Blackstoch’s Traces

Fitzsimons continues to gut, stack and cares the corpses of the lifeless toy animals. Eunjung Kim slowly and methodically steps into her material that she had been pouring out in the backdrop of the gallery. Not looking at her feet she begins to pace circularly atop the black sand and rice, introducing their unstable properties and lack of structure into each other. Matt Mahony Page struts into the space with a rushed attitude of unease. Following a puzzling sequence of actions he wraps a rope around a beam, pulling on the rope as if to secure its strength in supporting his weight, mission-impossible-style. He lies on his back and desperately pulls himself up against the coarse concreate floor. The exertion of action illustrates a fruitless, frivolous effort. An intervening gesture interrupts Page’s inverted climbing. As the artist pulls himself up against horizontal gravity a bristly brush scrapes on the highest points of his face, the nose, protruding tongue and chin.

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Matt Mahony Page (on floor), Eunjung Kim (leaned over)

 

While the image created by this performance did not take form of a trace of material in the gallery, perhaps more interestingly it  took the form of impression upon the face of the artist, a scar easily read to be that of a rough brush. This impression will leave the gallery as opposed to being confined to the gallery space. Kim’s gesture becomes quicker as she got closer to the ground bending over with her arms out. Her gaze becomes low and she acts as the catalyst between the changing structure of these two highly intentional, specific materials in a potentially infinite action, leaving a galaxy-like image behind.

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Eunjung Kim’s traces

The curation of the performances that made up the event as a whole allowed for enough attention to be given to each performance, while none taking away from the other. A task not easy to achieve, BREATHING OUT BREATHING IN consisted of actions that don’t merely disappear but have real-world complex manifestations both in the gallery and out. The intensity felt throughout the course of this performance had kept my cough at bay as my attention was locked on the subtle and intentional gestures of each performance. It wasn’t until the performance concluded that my breath had remembered it needed to sporadically pulse out of my chest again.

 

BREATHING OUT  BREATHING IN was part of Nigel Rolfe’s 8th solo show at the Green on Red Gallery, BREATH, curated by Jerome O’Driscoll. The performance was realised by six UK based artistsJade Blackstock, Paula Fitzsimons, Alice Jacobs, Eunjung Kim, Matt Mahony Page and Nigel Rolfe on Thursday, October 12th, 2017; curated by Nigel Rolfe and Paula Fitzsimons. Images by Sara Muthi.

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Sandra Johnston, “Waiting Out”

by Fergus Byrne

Within moments she had commanded our attention.  The simple act of opening up the doors brought a change to the room. She sat waiting in the flood of light and put on a pair of sports shoes, football or track, hard to tell at a distance. Audience flocked closer when she went outside to shovel the rubble. Clay and bricks were thrown across the floor and poured on top of a pine table. On the floor lay a saw, a hammer and a champagne glass. In the middle of the room was a huge stage cleverly suspended on the four pillars of the room.

How to write of Sandra Johnson’s work at Catalyst and acknowledge the poetic relations she creates between objects and her body whilst conveying the extent to which my nerves tense with the fear that these images might tip over into accident? As I watched this performance, memories of others recurred to me. Johnson’s personal iconography is distinctive and I have begun to note the syntactical relation of objects and actions; how she has developed a very consistent language with domestic and found objects.  Seldom are they not integrated with physical action.

Cologne, Tues 30th Sept 2014; …grinds down thick white chalk in circles on the table, leaning into it and holding it onto her hips. Her own legs replace the side of the table as its connection to floor. Already a pushing of the materiality. Drops the table down to floor nicely aware of how it has fused with her waist, bends the knees to allow it to descend.[1]

Natural actions are extended beyond themselves to strike up images that reify the improbable. Only after the Catalyst performance did I remember that specific action from Cologne and realised its continuum in the treatment of the larger pine table.

Johnson works in both durational formats of several hours and shorter times, of under an hour. These shorter actions which an audience will view from start to finish generate great tension through the urgency of her action. It is as if the potential for evolution in a longer timeframe is compressed and by so doing we are compelled to watch every moment. Nothing is superfluous.

The unusually prominent stage presented a challenge to any performer. It worked well the night before at the FIX festival to carry sound vibrations through our bodies as we sat on it during Robert Curgenven’s work. But how to deal with it, when to ignore it and use the floor would not remove it from the audience’s perception? In the event Johnson began on the floor, introduced several objects, traversed the stage and reduced it to being one amongst the varied entities within the room.

There is great imagination at play in Johnson’s work. In Cologne the squeezing of an orange over a candle threatened its flame with the most delicate quenching. Then I was confronted by the harder image where the spray was above her eyes. And I sensed the sting of citrus. Or here at Catalyst the pragmatic sawing of the toe caps: an allusion to a fragile part of the body and conjured associations of discarded mittens. The training shoes had been found outside her home some time before. After some days they remained so she took them as an object for a future performance in keeping with a habit of always using a found or gifted object amongst her paraphernalia.[2]

The more subtle activity with objects occurs later in the work after the initial moments when the space is claimed – the chalkstick skimmed across the floor at The Mac, alerting the burbling audience that the performance has begun.[3] Or the tossing away of shoes in the Orangerie of Cologne, another vigorous gesture to lay the ground for the more considered unfolding of the work.

Cologne Tues 30th Sept 2014: The balancing of the candle on the knee does not work, so instead it is put between the toes. Takes off her belt and around her ankle buckles. Raises her foot and slides down the chair. Pulling the foot with her belt I see her attempting to dribble wax toward her eyes.

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Candles which I saw used in Cologne again featured at Catalyst.  Held between her toes she lifted her leg onto the table using her belt as a hoist. The leg became strangely disembodied; a candleholder attached to her torso.  Consequently she climbed upon the table following her leg. My perception of time slowed as she rose. The image formed of a woman balanced on one leg floating the other through space, a flickering candle gripped between toes.  The investment in the action brings vitality to the moment. Poise and balance becomes a persistent feature.

The table is inclined at 45°, leaning onto the stage. Having cut the toes off the shoes for better grip she stands upon it bouncing lightly on its surface. She drops to catch the top edge and holds herself in a press-up along its incline. One foot pressed onto the surface with the other crossed over it. I’ve seen this shape before, at The Mac; balanced atop three glasses, the body as an outstretched tripod of two hands and foot.

In the transitions between passages of activity there is no easing up of focus.  I watch her climb down from the table. Despite her foot being only inches from the ground she resists dropping down. No sudden junctures in motion from one point to another. A foothold within reach, the crossbar of the table, is found. By so doing there is no moment where her activity is relieved by a casual movement.  There is a tensegrity to the performance.[4] Although the scale is not architectural, the balancing of objects with the body engenders a mutual relation between performer and object. On top of this an atmosphere of acute observation by the audience brings us into an emotional tension with the physical action.

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All objects that were set out at the start were gradually brought into the equation.[5]  The passage through a space is a strong performance device that allows actions to evolve as a consequence of travel. By the end Johnson had crossed the room and engaged the entire space. The table was cartwheeled across the stage before being slid of onto the floor. At the far end of the room from where I now stood Johnson balanced on the table’s upturned end in movements that became quite gymnastic as she focussed her weight in relation to the apparatus. The actions had a quality of childlike inquiry pushed to a point where her body was just another element in the game. The movement was a puzzling out of how to get around this object without perhaps touching the feet to the floor.  Her immersion in this focussed state is compelling to watch. And nerve wracking because from outside we wonder how long the focus can be sustained. This is the measure against which she works, the creation of images that constantly draw upon complete engagement.  To lose focus has a double risk that of rupturing the performance and that of injuring the self.

On this occasion tension was rising as she hung from the cross brace of the table and kicked at its underside taunting it with the imprecation to move. The physics of an unfortunate table flip might only take a split second. With the conclusion of this I exhaled as she walked away having achieved a response from the table. It yielded by rotating on the floor.  To conclude she surveyed the space, picked up the toe cap of one shoe, walked over to the stage and set it down beside the other.  A reordering of all objects of the performance.

[1] This and other italicized text is taken from notes written soon after the Cologne performance.

[2] From a conversation with the artist.

[3] This action was from a performance at The Mac, Belfast on 11th Jan 2014

[4] Tensegritytensional integrity or floating compression is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension, in such a way that the compressed members (usually bars or struts) do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or tendons) delineate the system spatially.

The term was coined by Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s as a portmanteau of “tensional integrity” (Wikipedia).

I use the phrase here in a metaphorical way considering the emotional tension as a material entity.

[5] Thanks to Ciara McKeon for this observation made of the work as we discussed it afterwards.

Sandra Johnston performed Waiting Out as part of the 2017 FIX Festival at the Catalyst Art Gallery, Belfast, on Sunday 8 October. Images by Jordan Hutchings.

Interntional University “Global Theatre Experience,” the Ostrenko Brothers, and Embodied Statues of the Psyche

by Jack Beglin

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ArtUniverse is an international arts agency created in 2006 in Great Britain with the mission:

To develop transnational cultural collaboration and exchange between arts and culture workers, to strengthen international cultural links through artistic expression and to assist artists in the development of projects of a high professional level and significant artistic and sociocultural value.[1]

In order to facilitate and realise its vision, Arts Universe are spearheading, IUGTE – the International University “Global Theatre Experience.” IUGTE was founded in 2000 with the purpose of exploring the bridge between world theatre traditions and contemporary performance. I had the opportunity to participate in IUGTE’s Movement: Directing and Teaching Lab with Sergei and Gennady Ostrenko at The Retzhof Educational Institute, Lebnitz, Austria, August 22 – 28th, 2017.

Sergei Ostrenko, is a Russian director, choreographer, teacher and the head of IUGTE’s Russian Theatre Department. His professional career started in 1976, after graduating from the Academy of Arts as a stage designer. He then continued his education as an actor and then later as a director. Sergei’s biography reads like an alchemist’s cookbook for the performer’s craft. Conducting international, interdisciplinary and cross cultural research since 1988, Sergei has traversed a kaleidoscope of embodied practice to arrive at the formation of his unique approach – the Ostrenko Method, which “guides the performers through the development of a physical culture, a form of self exploration that provides a fully alive, fresh presence on stage and originates a spontaneous blossom in each artist.”[2]

Gennady Ostrenko, is a choreographer, set designer, theatre artist, costume designer, educator and painter, from Ukraine. Like his brother’s biography, Gennady’s resume reads like an encyclopaedia for the performing and scenic arts. Practicing Tai Chi Quan since 1990, Gennady’s approach to performer training combines meditative and transcendental techniques with modern methods of embodiment such as Butoh dance and contact improvisation. For Gennady, he sees the future of performing arts practice as rooted in contact improvisation:

One touch with a partner can give you the whole history of your partner’s life and his world, it is so full of emotional content…working with a partner, feeling him and communicating with him, even without words… Words could not pass the information about you, your life and your emotions as it does a dance.[3]

Assisting the Ostrenko Brother’s is Veronika Zhuk, a Master of Arts Student in Responsible Management of ICRM at Steinbeis University, Berlin. She is administrator and translator to the Ostrenko Brothers.

My first encounter with Sergei and Gennady takes place in Seminar Room three of The Retzhof Educational Institute; a fifteenth century refurbished castle where the melodic sound of statue chiseling and the humid heat of the Austrian summer envelope a central courtyard of fountains overlooked by open eyed balconies.

As Sergie’s Russian sentences braid themselves amongst Veronika’s English translations, I look around the circle at a cast of multi cultural actors and dancers. India, North America, Germany, Poland, England, Iceland, Italy and Ireland all represented. A United Nations of artists united trough the kinaesthetic sense and the embodiment of the ever present moment. I am in a country where words dissolve and the imagination speaks through the body.

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The research at the movement lab consisted of three phases scheduled between Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. A typical working day was scheduled accordingly;

7 – 8: 00: Warm up in nature
8 – 9:00: Breakfast
10 – 12: 00: Practical Training
12 – 13:00: Lunch
13 – 14: 00: Break
14 – 18:00: Practical Training
18 – 19: 00: Dinner
19 – 19: 30: Break
19: 30 – 21: 00: Creative Diary

Scheduling the program in this way struck a healthy balance between intensive movement exploration, eating, reflecting and socialising. The work consisted of three passes:

  1. Warm up in Nature: an introduction to Meyerhold’s biomechanics, a pre – expressive training to prepare the body-mind for performance. Flowing through the pendulum-like swinging movements and the iconic etudes, such as shooting from the bow and throwing a stone, I felt as if I was in a Soviet Mural. I mimed the ergonomic movements of hammering a train spike into the railroad and taking cover from falling derby on the factory floor.
  2. Practical Training: ensemble building through contact improvisation techniques. With a partner, eyes closed and then open, we led and followed one another in space through the kinsathetic sense. Eventually the difference between the leader and the follower dissolved as the duos dialogues became articulate in their corporal conversations. Sergei and Gennady would then encourage us to build simple group choreographies based on pictures of classical Renaissance art. These moving tableaux were enriched by embodying them through the imagination and presented to audience members accompanied by epic music from Segie’s boom box, transforming them into moving statues of the psyche, tapping into a collective world of archetypes that told the hopes and fears of man in moving pictures. Practical training also involved approaches to composition, physical scores and text.
  3. Creative Diary: an introduction to devising and compositional work. Segie would set us simple creative tasks for us to devise in groups. This was an opportunity for us to incorporate the devising structures that we learned during the practical training into the making of a short sketch. Here we learned how to structure a sequence of actions to tell a story. We learned that the more limited the creative choices the more freedom there was to explore their possibilities. We also came to the conclusion that it is always better to devise material and place it in real time and space first rather than talking about an abstract ‘concept’ or ‘vision’ . Any performer devising a performance will be familiar with the torturous loop of never-ending conversation that ensues when an ensemble come together to create a performance. Sergie’s method bypasses the rational mind in favour for a pragmatic and embodied approach to devising. In this way, performers produce material first and reflect upon their experience afterwards.

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Gennady’s sentiments, “words could not pass the information about you, your life and your emotions as it does a dance,”[4] ring true as I finish our last creative session and make my way back to my hotel room 205. I insert my key into the key hole as I look up at a picture of Sigmund Freud, as the Retzhof Castle Hotel is lined with portraits of famous artists, activist and academics. I open the door and walk into my room. I ask myself what would Carl Jung say about this experience? The answer was on the tip of my tough and hovered somewhere between a sound and a gesture. I recall a moment in the practical training when we were creating ensemble choreographies through classical pictures of Renaissance art. I am working with a talented Indian actress, Kiran, and Gennady. Transitioning from one image to the other, as I move from a depiction of Jesus in Mary’s arms, to the depiction of Pan chasing a naked woman, I clock eyes with Kiran. Our eye contact is intense. The epic music culminates as we exercise our imagination through the given circumstances. A single tear drops from her eye. We transition into the next image; Jesus is giving Judgment over a Roman soldier and a Priest. Gennady as the Roman soldier holds in his hand an upside-down baby while as a Priest, I look up with clasped hands at Kiran, playing Jesus. She is sitting on a thrown wearing an orange garb holding her fingers in a Mudra. Tears are now streaming down her face.

Later in conversation with Kiran, she said that this devising work struck a chord in her heart that she could not understand. The pictures, the physicality, the music and the imagination taped into a part of her that that she was otherwise unaware of. I’m sure Jung would be able to comment on this experience.

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For me, this was the important moment in the program. These moving tableaux became embodied statues of the psyche that connected us to a collective unconscious. A world of archetypes animated by theatrical performance.

ArtUniverse, IUGTE and the Ostrenko brothers are doing a brave thing. In a world of increasing materialism they are investing in the technologies of the imagination and the human heart. They are connecting international dancers, actors and live performers through the universal language of the moving body. Through their work “originates a spontaneous blossom in each artist.”[5]

 

Notes

[1]http://www.artuniverse.org/home, accessed Sept 09, 2017

[2] http://www.iugte.com/documents/ostrenko, accessed Sept 09, 2017

[3] http://www.iugte.com/documents/gennady-ostrenko, accessed Sept 09, 2017

[4] http://www.iugte.com/documents/gennady-ostrenko, accessed Sept 09, 2017

[5] http://www.iugte.com/documents/ostrenko, accessed Sept 09, 2017