Saturday, 30 July 2011

Dedominici at Latitude

Richard Dedominici's brand of lecture performance may not be entirely appropriate for a sunny festival in a cabaret tent. Then again, given his propensity for agitation and awkwardness, I'm not sure he is entirely appropriate anywhere. Great Dedominici moments in my life include his speech at the National Review of Live Art, when he launched his own archive (sample entry: "this is like Disneyland, in so far as there are plenty of queues"), the day he hunkered down with my mother to discuss the problems of Watford's art-ignorant mayor, and the arrest in Edinburgh after he asked whether the cannon at the castle could take out the new parliament.

His latest obsession - following on from trying to create a Croydon-Watford rivalry - is the lack of physical exercise inspired by the Olympics. His technique of taking a surprise fact - here, the salient point that the arrival in a country of the Olympics sees an immediate downturn in actual sporting activity by the citizens - then exploding it through absurdist shattershots has led him to campaign for more dogging.

His suggestion that we gather in a car park for a spot of action research during Paolo Nuntini's set is warmly greeted - certainly, watching a pair of middle-aged strangers achieve uncomfortable orgasms in the back of a Ford Escort, while raining spunk on the windscreen and chasis beats an hour of most MOR music - but Dedominici's research is still in the planning stages. An attempt to design an Olympic torch in style of a golden dildo, an interlude by Pop Era (pop plus opera), a coda in which he invents words to the Cagney and Lacey theme tune: Dedominici is not quite ready to present the International Dogging Federation to the world. Against quick fire comedy and loud music, the hour is fragmented and less forceful than his previous forays into political art.

As always, there is a serious point behind the tomfoolery: Dedominci is a sharp social commentator and Dogging for Gold has a moral intention that belies the surface crudeness. Not only does it allow him to pursue one of the phenomenon that makes up the spectrum of sexuality in the UK, but is rarely discussed except pruriently, he pokes fun at the Olympics. He even avoids easy jokes about the Lisa Simpson giving head logo.

Dedominici's moral universe is slowly coming into focus. He casts himself as harmless, a Live Art jester, yet his vision of the UK - lulled by media, lurking in the bushes and unthinkingly slipping into a corporate-controlled sleep.

A Few Thoughts On The Edinburgh Festival 2011

There's a great deal of oriental work in the EIF this year. I'm not complaining - I rely on artistic director Jonathan Mills to book a bunch of stuff I have never seen and give atrocious speeches about them. And it is well within the spirit of the Festival. Set up after World War II, it is all about emphasising the potential for understanding between cultures that art offers.

I'm pretty gung-ho to see Princess Bari  - choreographer Eun-Me Ahn reckons that "The History of Korea and the Princess' life are much alike," which has me thinking about the universality of art and the way that it is shaped by culture. I am also very excited by the Festival of China, which includes Qing Cheng, and they have given me a braw interview. And Mill's little tag this year, that he'll be repeating every five minutes, notes how the usual fuss made around eastern art as something other is, thankfully, a little more sophisticated.

But I had better have my doubt now.

There is a far bit of of Chinese work. China has been very keen to spread their culture around the world just lately. I like that. But China has a bloody atrocious human rights' record and I am hoping that this doesn't get forgotten. There is an argument that art and politics, like sport and politics, should be separate.

That's utter bullshit when it's the government that pays for the tours. And far too many artists have been over to China for a cultural exchange lately. As a critic, I have been very lax in not asking them whether they considered the political implications of what they are doing. I am happy if the artists can allay my concerns, but I won't be accepting any cultural relativism nonsense. Torture is torture, occupying Tibet is an invasion and  accepting money for a friendly jaunt around the nation implicates you.

The interesting question which I can't answer is whether this work represents authentic cultural work, or is a special version made for foreigners. Sometimes, I don't care: is it good, according to my special measurements? Other times I wonder whether it is like all the French cinema that they make for export: an inferior version that is patronising my tastes.  There's plenty of talk about how the pieces represent their nations. While I am sure that The National Theatre of Scotland tries to sell BlackWatch in much the same way to the world, I hope that the idea of a definitive national play would arouse suspicions in many Scots.

Still, in the end, I am just a critic and the real test is the audience. This being the EIF, they'll be rude enough to walk out in droves if it over-runs, feels a bit unfamiliar or becomes difficult. And while I'd like to think that I'd be asking the same questions if there was a preponderance of European work, I am probably just being a racist idiot. I probably had better bone up on Amnesty International's statistics before I say any more.

Homo Strip Action (part 1)

You see, what I am doing here is showing my working. This an interview I did with Peter Scott-Presland for the article I intend to write about striptease.

Scott-Presland was very generous with his answers, and it seems a shame to just take the tiny bit that interested me (it is the stuff about hen parties being dirty). But by editing it for online, this counts as research for my article.

I also reckon the tag “male strippers” ought to have fooled a few readers into coming onto the blog. But read on... it gets really filthy.

But I am going to start with the Press Release, for background...



Strip Search – a solo performance piece for male stripper, by Peter Scott-Presland.  SQUADDIE is stripping tonight, in a B-list gay bar; he is also stripping his soul, to the bone.  As he slips back and forth between his real-time strip routine and memories of borstal, of tours in Iraq, and of surviving on the streets post-discharge from the Army, we get a moving and angry picture of a man trying to better himself in a life which gave him no lucky breaks, with ironic contrasts between the real-life soldier and the military fantasy of his entertainment.  Fantasy and reality combine in a savage climax.  This is a heavily revised version of a script first presented in 2010.

Venue 36, Theatre 2, the Space on North Bridge, Carlton Hotel, EH1 1SD.

Previews: Fri – Sat, 5th – 6th August;  Main run: Mon 8th  - Sat 20th Aug 9.05pm

Titus Rowe was Boyz Magazine Stripper of the Year 2009, but has also a parallel career as an actor and singer, having appeared in parts as diverse as the Pirate King in “Pirates of Penzance” and Dionysus in “The Bacchae”.  It was this range of skills which prompted Peter Scott-Presland to write Strip Search for Titus.
Peter Scott-Presland has won Edinburgh Fringe Firsts for “Woody Shavings” and “Sir Herbert Macrae – A Tribute”, as well as being nominated for Best Musical in the “Plays and Players” Awards and in the Canadian DORAs, forDorothy’s Travels.  His musical La Ronde is currently on the shortlist for the 2011 “Offies”. 
Homo Promos has mounted over 20 plays and musicals since its inception in 1988.  It is the oldest gay theatre company in the UK.  It aims to present LGBT themes in an entertaining way which is also accessible to a diverse audience.  Out of the ghetto and onto the stage!

First of all - why did you use striptease as a central part of this performance?

It's a long story!  I was directing a show with the Company from Hell, and the only person in the cast who was reliable, friendly and talented was Titus Rowe; he let slip he actually earned his money as a male stripper.  From then on his life was made hell by a couple of the cast, who said he couldn't be a "real" actor because of this.  Now, I've always thought a lot of skill went into creating a strip act, and he was Boyz Stripper of the Year, so I thought "You c---ts, I'll show you", and devised a show which combined his talents, and blew out of the water the notion that a stripper couldn't be a real actor.

There are three reasons why strip is essential to this show.  Firstly, the guy is baring his soul to the audience, his struggle to make up for a shitty life - I won't give away all the plot -and so the physical strip is a metaphor for his psychological strip, the journey of discovery for the character and the audience.  Secondly, one of my main complaints about one-person plays where characters tell their life stories is that there is so little conflict in them; where's the classic drama structure of conflict and resolution acted out?  Putting in a real strip gives an additional dramatic tension - "will he or won't he?" - to the story.  Finally, as a gay man I've always been very anti-military and not very patriotic either, and so I was intrigued by the way military images are so much part of the sexual fantasies of many gay men.  This show plays on the gap between the reality and fantasy, in that the character has been a soldier in real life, and is playing out a military fantasy at the same time.

As it goes, the interview continues into part 2...

Hot Homo Strip Action (part 2)

Strip Search jumps between "light entertainment" - the striptease fantasy - and something much harder - the past of the main character. how far is this show a serious play about issues, or something lighter and funnier?

I think I've answered that to some extent.  Don't worry, there are quite a few good jokes in the script, but it is a serious play, and quite shocking and harrowing in places.  When we did previews, there was an element in the audience of gay men who came along to see a spectacularly good-looking hunk get his kit off, but by the time we got to the nitty-gritty, they were so into the story and the character that they were looking at his face, not his dick.  And that's how it should be.

How do you feel about the revival of striptease as an acceptable form of entertainment, through the burlesque revival and so on?

You have to separate gay male experience from heterosexual or lesbian experience here.  Stripping is dying on the gay scene.  Twenty years ago there were a dozen strippers making a good living from touring a well-established pub circuit.  The availability of sex and porn on the internet has changed all that.  For lesbians, girl-for-girl strippers are a way of asserting sexuality which for so long was assumed not to exist.  If you know dykes today, they are reveling in the power and freedom to pull - they're just as slutty as the boyz have always been!  The heterosexual burlesque revival is something else again - it involves camp and glamour and is very knowing and post-modern.  But again I think you have to separate young women - a lot of them drama students or ex-drama students - doing burlesque to an essentially theatrical audience, from the Eastern European girls working the Soho strip joints and the so-called "gentlemen's clubs" in a much harsher environment and driven by economic necessity.

Is there a particular aesthetic or social context to male striptease for gay audiences that is not present in heterosexual striptease?

People who strip for gay audiences as well as for hen nights tell me that gay audiences are much better behaved.  The hens are merciless, and much dirtier!  I think this is partly because gay strip nights are a regular weekly thing - Monday Karaoke, Tuesday Quiz, Wednesday Stripper - whereas a hen night is usually something special, a one-off, and much more an excuse for letting your hair down and letting off steam.  For gay men who follow strip nights there's more of an aesthetic, plus there's the aspirational aspect: I could have a body like that, if only I could get my lardarse down to the gym.  Our most appreciative audiences have been women and gay men.  I think straight men find male strippers threatening, though I can assure them that they won't get ravished in the third row in this show!

Self Pity

Why is my life so disappointing? It's two days before the Fringe, beautifully and surprisingly warm, I have the Skinny office to myself and I can't can't conquer that sense that life is shit.

Of course, I am musing on past romantic failures. I am also looking at the number of previews I thought I would write, and realising that some really good interviews are going to get lost. I am not even sure whether my list of writers for The Shimmy is complete, and missing one of them from an email could mean losing a PhD candidate's thoughts on their dream show. I've put together an amazing team to write The Shimmy. As long as I get out of their way, they will demonstrate that The Fringe doesn't have to be amateur hour for reviewing.

The answer, as any self-help guru will tell you, is that my perception is the problem. In some way, I want this disappointment. If I were happy, I wouldn't be chasing the dream, the moment of intense clarity that happens when a performance hits the right note. Ecstasy needs despair, God needs the devil and I need life to be shit so art can be the toilet paper.

I am just taking a quiet time out here, so that I can get my emo on. It's lucky I have no attention span... what's this in my inbox? An interview from a stripper...

Kafka and Son – Theaturtle (Assembly)

Alon Nashman talks about how his Kafka and Son is returning to Edinburgh Fringe.

How has the play developed in the past year, as it has discovered success? Why have you decided to return to the Fringe?
Last year I was completely bitten by the Festival, intoxicated with the cross-pollination of ideas and performance. The Flawless crew and Maori cheiftan Tame Iti of MAU came to see my play about Kafka, and I saw them in action. I knew I had to return, and I knew I wanted to introduce Edinburgh audiences to the work of Wajdi Mouawad, playwright of Alphonse. I also realized how much I needed to bring back Kafka and Son. Some great feedback, reviews and comments came out near the end of the run. It was just picking up momentum as we were leaving.

When the play was developed, why did Kafka stand out for you as a subject in himself?
Kafka can be seen as the canary in the mine of the 20th century, particularly sensitive to the absurdity, nastiness, and the beauracratic precision of the new fascism. Kafka's writing is full of foreboding, embarassing in it's honesty, but above all to me, delightfully, darkly hilarious.

How does the play approach the father-son relationship? Is there anything universal in Kafka's relationship to his dad?
When director Mark Cassidy introduced me to the revelatory letter Kafka wrote to his father I sensed its inherent theatricality. Kafka wrote his father into the letter, as a challanger, an accuser, someone always ready to set the record straight. Towards the end of the letter the Father is conjured in full, and like a Frankenstein monster he is unleased, and father essentially destroys his son's arguments. So there is a built-in dialogue between father and son, an epic conflict between mighty opposites.

What process did you use to develop the performance from the original letter?
Adaptation was a 2 year process of whittling the text of the letter, and of reading Kafka biographies, fiction, short stories and letters. In the end director Cassidy and I wove material from other Kafka works in which Fathers and Sons are prominent into the play. Themes of sons trying to release themselves from the crushing influence of fathers, of artists being misunderstood by society, and of people being abused or ignored by authority, dominate Kafka's writing. It is clear from the letter that Kafka's first experience of these dynamics was at home with his father.

What the play adds to this theatrical set-up is a degree of compassion for the father, a man of commerce and industry saddled with a sensitive son who traces all his insecurites on father. A fascinating result of this play is that it polarizes the audience into two camps, one which sympathizes with Franz and the other which sees the situation through the Father's eyes.

Unfound Latitudes

"It seems rather quiet for the main road into a major festival," I mumble.

Unsurprisingly for the UK's most famous chap-hop superstar, Mr B does not reply, but checks his reflection in the rear view mirror. His moustache is perfect, not a hair out of place. In a single, fluid movement, he makes a perfect u-turn. Fairly soon, we are stuck in a reassuringly slow tailback.

Since his warm-up act consisted of two rather earnest British hip-hoppers - a weak rapper and a superb beat-boxer - I was concerned how my chaffeur's set would go down at Latitude. It's the day before the main festival starts, and only the poetry tent is really open for business. Waiting for Mr B, watching the line up of shouting lads trying to convince themselves that they are not sissies for writing poetry, I was reminded Why I Hate Spoken Poetry.

These boys remind me of myself, an incoherent mess of literary pretention and social outrage.

I've only seen fragments of B: cabaret slots, a third of a show with Des O'Connor and Sarah Louise Young, a couple of YouTube specials.  Over an hour, he is capable of far more diversity than I had expected. He even slips in a hand-waving, passionate ballad, dreaming of the day hip-hop become courteous.

Chap-hop would not work without Mr B's knowledge of hip-hop: I have heard rumours that he was once in an early UK crossover act. He might be bang on with the details of English aristocratic style - I wouldn't know. But his affection for rap's aesthetic - unlike the early acts, he has flow as well as the ability to spit rhymes - and his keen eye for the absurd makes Mr B more than a novelty turn.

Bookending his set with anthems - a history of hip-hop and the classic Acid Ted - Mr B moves through a variety of moods, from wistful (Kissing in Porn) to educational (All Hail the Chap), through satirical and slapstick. Love songs to having a quiet shit alternate with rocking takes on the history of rap. The tent is flapping in the wind, the crowd are dancing, and the next act on is in the wings, looked terrified.

Let's see if 2011 is the Fringe of Mr B...

Ballet Gets Rocked. Or Not

Ballet is to dance what superheroes are to comics. Retaining popularity over decades, dismissed by the connoisseur, still used as a basic definition  for study, ballet and superheros are merely a strand within a broader heritage, yet remain iconic. Contemporary dance - another useless blanket term that contains a variety of mutually competing styles - often reacts against ballet, rejecting its form while taking advantage of its technique. Meanwhile, audiences still prefer to see a ramshackle version of the classics than a pristine modern choreography. 

Rock the Ballet is, probably inadvertently, at the centre of this problem. Main man Rasta Thomas claims that "We have held on to the beauty and strength of the technique and let go of everything that can be boring!" By this he means "We use pop and rock music, wear funky clothes and break down the walls of what you would get going to the ballet! We yell and expect you to do the same! We "ROCK" the Ballet."

Of course, I am suspicious. I have had my own war with ballet - mainly a rebellion against my mother's love of it, but also because the moment I saw Les Ballets C de la B I believed that I had seen the potential of dance freed from convention. Thomas is obviously considering what limits appreciation of ballet, but his idea that using modern music - which can be painfully bad (hello Paolo Nuntini) - is revolutionary translates into a simplistic rejection of a rich heritage.

Given that Rock the Ballet advertises itself with fit guys leaping, tops off, his real rivals at the Fringe are going to be Flawless, not Scottish Ballet. And it is great that ballet is being reinvented to appeal to a younger audience. However, since he admits that "We select very versatile dancers. They are what we call "hybrids". They can do many styles of dance, as well as acrobatics & martial arts," it is questionable whether Rock the Ballet is ballet at all. Is it a cynical attempt to throw together two words - rock and ballet - that sound good, without actually having any ballet content at all?

Ballet conjures up a very specific image: tutus, slim girls on pointe, romantic duets, swirling, lush orchestration, men in tights with big packets. It means Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, the pas de deux, Nureyev and rows of swans in tight formation.

Of course, this isn't ballet. It's romantic ballet, one of the great genres. Ballet itself has been experimenting for the past century. Ironically, when the Ballet Russe, now regarded as a great example of the romantic model, hit Europe, their choreography was seen as influenced by Isadora Duncan. In the 1980s, ballet companies even employed post-modern choreographers(a movement rooted in 1960s avant-garde antics). Ashley Page revived Scottish Ballet by stripping down the floaty dresses.

So when Thomas adds that "I feel we are the future. The past is great to learn from but I wanna keep moving forward and stay on a path that's only meant for us," is he really comparing his work to Page's Cinderella or a notional idea of "ballet"?

It is unfair to single out Thomas. There are plenty of intellectual types who do the same - and there are plenty of balletomanes who insist that Romantic Ballet is Ballet, and everything else is circus tricks. A recent interview with Michael Clark's dancers - lovely though they were - was frustrating for me when they insisted, despite belonging to a company that was nearly entirely made up of ballet-trained dancers, and used ballet technique and vocabulary as a foundation of style, that they were contemporary, not ballet.

That they went on to make a solid working definition of contemporary dance - locating it on the floor rather than in the air - was only more disturbing when those "floor work moments" in Clark's shows were performed with an almost perfunctory lack of grace. But once the dancers were up, flinging their legs about... brilliant.

Chances are that Rock the Ballet doesn't need the ballet or contemporary audiences. Thomas is, himself, a talented performer: he won a bunch of competitions as a teenager, guested with the Kirov and has had a successful Broadway show. His wikipedia entry tells that his dad sent him to ballet as a punishment. That he took this and made a career is impressive. He is obviously as driven as he is hot, and the hype of the interview might reflect that energy rather than the aesthetic. In any case, it is his wife who is doing the choreography, not him. She probably gives interviews about how she digs Fokine and Bausch.

Kitty Cointreau Interview

The first time I met Kitty Cointreau was at the height of the 2010 Fringe Burlesque Controversy. A reviewer in The Scotsman had attacked burlesque as ant-feminist, leading to the most glamorous public protest until Slut Walk 2011, as burlesque acts took to the street to defend their art. I asked Cointreau to take over the editorial column on The Shimmy, and respond to the fuss. Her article clearly defended her right as a business-woman to develop her own take on cabaret.

What inspired you to take this particular path into cabaret? The Brahaha stands out in the market as a show not unafraid to take risks and bypass some of the more hypocritical aspects of burlesque...
My grandmother was a burlesque act and ENSA entertainer during World War II. She was also a contortionist and performed as 'the girl in the goldfish bowl' and did all kinds of sideshow routines. She was a great inspiration to me. It wasn't until 2006/07 when I went to see The Candybox shows in Birmingham that I realised there was a burgeoning scene for this kind of art and an audience clearly crying out for more.  I wanted to be a part of it. Seeing that show was a real turning point for me.
I think it’s important for shows of this genre to be different from each other. It’s not that BraHaHa is trying to bypass those hypocritical aspects of burlesque, but I do think that without risk, there is no reward. I wanted to create a show that was different from the majority of other cabaret shows out there. I love comedy and was a stand-up for a short while and wanted to bring together the two things that entertain me the most – great stand-up and gorgeous burlesque. We did face criticism at first for bringing the two styles together, but burlesque originally shared the stage with stand-up, so it seemed fitting to return to the roots of vaudeville. Two years later, BraHaHa is still alive, kicking, teasing and twirling and I’m proud to put my name to it.

 How does the new show fit into your usual approach?
Kitty & Jonny’s Speakteasy is an experimental rock n’ roll musical comedy show that I share with my friend Duncan Oakley who is performing as Jonny Wild. My burlesque is totally integrated and the tease is carried throughout the show until the big finale. It is a real synergy of my burlesque and Duncan’s musicianship. My approach has always been to just entertain the audience in whatever aspect of performance I’m involved in, be it music, comedy or burlesque. I’m a great believer that burlesque should be about laughing too.
Do you have any particular thoughts on the role of striptease in the cabaret revival?
Striptease has played a crucial role in the cabaret revival. The scene has just exploded, especially over the last two years, and the public has a fascination with burlesque and striptease. There is an element of curiosity about it. It has become the great ‘girl’s night out’ with the growth of the hen party market in this area. We also get families and couples of all ages coming to shows, from early twenties through to couples on their 50th wedding anniversary because it’s cheeky, bawdy, funny and glamorous, but totally non-threatening.  A great MC can help to foster a lovely, warm, supportive and inclusive environment, so it isn’t about letching, leering and dirty macs. People also love a bit of escapism and a reason to dress up and see some great entertainment.  It has a much broader appeal than I think promoters could’ve envisaged a few years back. I’m very proud to be involved in an art form with such a great history and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings terms of new audiences, scale and the new acts everyone can put together.
 Is there much difference in the two shows that you are bringing to the Fringe this year?
BraHaHa takes a vaudeville approach. Programming the show every day and picking exactly the right mix of guest acts from award-winning stand-ups, to burlesque darlings, to great magicians to music acts and circus artists, is the key. Speakteasy is my rock n’ roll ‘toddler’ that allows me to work more collaboratively. The two shows offer a different style and tone to the fringe audience

Friday, 29 July 2011

Please Add What Makes You Proud of Glasgow...

Like all good bloggers, I am getting lazy. Update the blog? No, I'd rather go onto Messenger and see if RolePlayGurl28 is hanging out. Besides, July is Vile Arts' Research and Development Month. Producer Harry and idiot Gareth are hanging out in cool bars, attending hip openings and networking. I'm the one in the beret, asking if anyone has a cigarette.

After eight months of being The Vile Arts Radio Hour, I decided that I wanted to be the Vile Arts Media Empire. As Rupert Murdoch's machine is slowly clogged up by the blood of innocent celebrity victims, my vague ideas about collectivism, collaboration and connectivity are poised to slip onto News International's Throne of Blood.

Just as soon as I can afford to get my internet put back on.

In the meantime, I am opening myself up to experience. Although I am not really keen on putting this blog into the public domain officially just yet, I am slapping down plenty of "first thought, best thought" ruminations. I am scattering the fragments of my experience across the floor like my dirty clothes, and seeing whether they can be pieced into a vision.

Subcity Radio has been a revelation. Online radio is one of those interestingly liminal media: not quite completely modern - the form preexists the shit-pump - it retains a heritage that goes back to shacks on hills, a single transmitter bleeping out the hillbilly music and anxious words of conspiracy theorists.

And blogs - well, they aren't even that contemporary. But the freedom of access attracts me, the ease of creation... no waiting, no editing. If I put the spell check on, they are reasonably readable, even after an all-night coffee binge.

Although the grammar check is very generous about my multiple clause sentences.

I know that I live in a city that is dynamic, and I love that I am going to walk out into the night in about twenty minutes to find something free and cool.

The Vile Arts has to be about documenting that.

I want to document it. I want to talk abut Noise Music with Kylie. I want to see Avenue Q through the filter of Live Art. I want to disrupt the business as usual of politics, which sees art as either a luxury or a branch of the social services.

I want to bring back the excitement I felt being in Prague. Not the excitement of cheap pints and accidentally walking in on a live sex show - I did think a cover charge was a bit steep for a local bar - but the realisation that twenty years ago, The Czech Republic had only ballet and folk dance: now it has radical dance companies and a big festival that rivals our own New Territories in scope and variety.

And I want Glasgow to remember that the "Glasgow Effect" is a buzz word for all slightly impoverished cities that want to rescue themselves through culture.

Let's hope the City Council remember that it is the artists who rescued the Merchant City, not the town planners.

So beneath this sad little entry, if you must read it, please add what makes you proud to live in Glasgow. Then I can steal your ideas and turn them into ten minutes of radio,

Qing Ching

Taoism is the ancient Chinese religion that hooked up with Buddhism to make Zen. Beloved of stupid western hippies, who quote the Tao Te Ching before slipping back into a stoned stupor, it is all the more difficult to understand because it refuses to define its central concept.

Qing Ching is “the first ever artistic attempt to showcase the Taoist philosophy on stage," says James Tee Wee. It highlights the particular preoccupations of this rich spiritual tradition. “The story line itself is based upon a very strong Taoist culture. Take for example the duality of soft versus hard, and the ideas of non-doing, immortality, natural balance, and ultimate quietude: one will find the teaching of Lao Tzu presented in abundance. The us of tai chi movement, sword technique, calligraphy, chess games, music instruments, and praying rituals on stage are all very representative of Taoism. Even the scenery wagon on stage resemble a pair of Ying and Yang!” 

Taoism is one of those traditions of thought that confuses simplistic ideas about the difference between religion and philosophy. While it does have a splendid pantheon of gods – and Qing Cheng is a story about lovers who live a thousand plus years, suggesting a magical rather than rational universe – it can be elegantly reduced to a series of epigrams that might not reflect western philosophy – Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, is more mystical than logical – but don’t fall into the category of religion as defined within the Judeo-Christian heritage. This might explain why hippies love it, and why Richard Dawkins hasn’t written a book condemning it as child abuse.

Tai Chi – the elegant martial art that doesn’t involving kicking or punching anyone, and a gentle alternative to the contortions of yoga in gyms across the UK – is another part of Taoism that has made the journey to the West. For RinkyDink, “like calligraphy, meditation, and many others, martial art is part of the total concept of Taoist wellness lifestyle. The musical would not be a complete Taoist presentation without martial art.”

Surprisingly, given theatre’s current obsession with incorporating everything from wrestling to monkey moves into the action, this use of martial arts is not that common in China. “Performing arts like Sichuanese face-change, Beijing opera, and many folk dances around China do not involve martial art. They may have some kind warming up exercise but it's not martial art.”

The Ying and Yang is the central image of Taoism, and symbolises the complex relationship between contrasting elements that makes us Taoism’s most distinctive – and well-known – concept. Given that “the Tao which can be named is not the Tao,” it is perhaps surprising that theatre has not been quicker to play with its precepts, since it contains that ambiguity that is ideal for a challenging performance.  

Christian religious art – from Botticelli’s Annunciation to David Mach’s controversial exhibition down near Waverley Station – takes on all manner of forms, but James Tee Wee observes that Taoism dictates that its art has a particular quality. “The practitioner has to master their heart and soul. It is not just as simple as controlling them but to subdue all impulses and let the being itself blend very harmoniously with universe.”

As the performance reveals, this philosophy can be found in many arts, but the quality of the artist is, in itself, the ideal being expressed. “One can easily spot a uniqueness in all Taoist arts, which is the feel of harmony. The act can be swift and forceful but the results are always graceful and smooth.”

Better Criticism Through Self Hatred

It's a timely reminder, in the run-up to the Fringe. Sometimes it is easy to forget why I continue to go to the theatre and refuse to buy a television. For my parents, throwing away my successful career as a Latin teacher to become a critic was senseless. Every time I queue up to get my brain-fixing medication prescription filled, I do wonder...

The cliché is that critics are failed artists. That isn’t true for me: I hate scripts too much to ever want to write one, and the only choreography I want to do with dancers would probably get me arrested if I put it between the proscenium arch. Criticism is a form of passive-aggression, though: it is my art, and like Woody Allen at the end of Annie Hall, I make it to repair the shit that my life has become.

The tiny things that hurt – the mentioned-in-passing boyfriend, the wound deep into my romantic soul, the job opportunity that disappears, the friend too drunk to talk, getting stopped by the police for jumping a stop sign, the days spent in an office when the Glasgow summer presents its one day of sunshine – all the little pieces of crap luck and miscommunication that add up to an imprecise melancholia. This fuels me as much as grave social injustice or the break-up of my once happy home. It keeps me going back to the theatre, hoping that this time there will be that moment of transcendence, that hope, that structural perfection that wipes away the flawed, incomprehensible reality that I inhabit.

And then to write about it, to lose myself in descending deeper into that maelstrom, to pretend that the stage is more real, more true, more authentic, clinging to the vague hope that there is a shape to the universe, that there is a God, and that in some way, some play will give me the secret code.

I’ve been told that my criticism denies the idea of a great meta-narrative to the universe. I think that means that I can’t see a big story behind everything.

I have said that my criticism isn’t a bunch of reviews, it’s a novel that can be read in any order. That means I am a pretentious arse.

When I was teaching, I told my pupils that art was a mirror in which we find ourselves. That means I really should not have worked in primary schools.

So getting mildly wounded, having to drag my battered emotions offstage while maintaining that Mr Darcy-meets-Jack Kerouac persona, pretending that I have to get the next train when all I am really doing to ending a conversation that makes me want to weep… that ought to get most of the previews I need to do done for the Fringe in the next two days.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Radio Hour Blues

The Vile Arts Radio Hour began in January 2011. Recorded live at Subcity between 3pm and 5pm on Friday afternoons, it combines my enthusiasm for contemporary classical music, Glasgow's dynamic arts scenes, My Producer Harry's laconic wit and technical knowledge and Subcity's idiosyncratic approach to post-student radio. Modesty, and a residual honesty left over from my time training under the Jesuits, forbids me from praising my contribution too heavily. The guest list, however, is very impressive and I think it is the generosity of musicians, actors, theatres, art galleries, cultural pundits, film and festival programmers that have made it the top rated arts-based show on the station.

Today's blog has three tasks: to parade my ego, give a brief guide to the show's vision and ethos, help future guests know a bit about what they can expect on the Hour. The best thing to do would be to listen to it. You can  fast forward over my voice.

When Harry and I started the show - we used to be called The Skinny Radio Hour, until my arrogance decided that it ought to be called Vile Arts and concentrate on whatever aesthetic butterfly had landed on the stamen of my consciousness - we had a very clear vision. We wanted to investigate the various scenes that interlock and define Glasgow. I come from a Performance background, fascinated by the possibilities of the live event. Harry is an engineer, musician and philosopher. That the scenes and places we cover are very much our choices seems to connect with the way Glasgow operates: subjective, eclectic, chaotic. The addition of Nick Spaghetti broadened the playlist, but kept us partial.

The Radio Hour is very much an extension of the critical writing I have been doing for The Skinny over the past five years: I still plunder the Skinny for information, keeping an eye on Dave Kerr's articles and recommendations, and write from a deliberately personal perspective. Lately, I have gotten into politics. Not party political: I read all the manifestos and decided I preferred my fiction more realistic. In line with my overall attitude to life - confused, partisan, selfish - my politics are Radically Subjective. I have no idea what I am talking about, but I am willing to begin a conversation until someone with the facts turns up.

I am broadly evangelical about the arts. We don't invite artists or curators on to tear them apart. I am hoping for a few more guests from the worlds of cultural politics in the future, so I can get spiteful. I don't like everything I play on the show (viz. the Swedish House Mafia Incident). But I think that anything that gets people away from the TV to share an experience is a Social Good.

Alongside the advocacy of Glasgow creativity, we emphasis work that is cross-platform. We are also keen on New Media - online radio, podcasts, blogs, social media. As an Old Media critic, the best jokes I hear are in the area of print publications trying to understand the internet. Oh, and the record companies trying to protect their hegemony by claiming to be all about developing bands. I assume none of them have read Steve Albini's comments on the A'n'R men.

The Radio Hour lasts two hours and features between three and five guests per episode. Most of our listeners tune in "on demand" - that is, in the week following the live broadcast. This is why the show tends to focus on work in the fortnight ahead, and not the weekend approaching. We prefer live interviews - they seem to go better.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

EXTREME sets and stages

Once I’d seen the sign for EXTREME scenography, it was inevitable that I would spend most of the day in a darkened basement, staring at costumes that were either sexually explicit or just plain nasty. A wedding dress that was made from bullets; an inflatable that looked like a big pair of knockers; opera body suits articulated like crap action figures: it might have come for the cheap thrills, but I stayed for the lesson in how a single outfit can express the entire philosophy of a performance.
Obviously, this was the stuff that nations rolled out to show who was the best at art. Every country wants to show how cool they are, and even theatre-makers aren’t above a wee spot of swaggering. But I have under-estimated the importance of costume – is this because I’m just not getting enough cool gear in Scotland?
Going back to that wedding dress made of bullets. It was for a production of Titus Andronicus – one of those Shakespeare rags that is worth reviving, simply because it tends to get ignored for another Romeo and Fucking Juliet. Titus is hardcore violent. Everything gets chopped off, there are none of those soulful soliloquies. It’s like Bill got the Chapman Brothers to brainstorm a concept.
The dress of bullets is pretty revealing: enough T and A on show to make the bullets fetishistic. It’s erotic in the filthiest sense, jarring the sexual response to naked female flesh by associating it with violence and death. This is the Two Girls One Cup version of Shakespeare.
The inflatable hooters, conversely, were an oddly slapstick presence in a work that overdid the kitsch. Yet they served a similar purpose, in short-circuiting an expected response. Shakespeare and Co. Are all well and good, but years of generic productions and education have blunted the edge.  It is this kind of magic that makes me so irritated by the traditional British veneration for the script. Despite my ranting, I am fond of words, right up until they become a replacement for the total, immersive potential of theatre.

Frost and Fire

Now that I fancy myself as a media mogul – the fall of News International has left a Vile Arts shaped hole in the multinational corporation world – I have become fascinated by music again. Something I considered lost after I bust my eardrum at that Boredoms’ gig has now become as relevant as Facebook stalking.
A brief flirtation at Latitude with Paolo Nuntini reminded me that the mainstream wasn’t much help: songs about how new shoes make everything okay are really for the under-fives. Luckily, I live in Glasgow, where a thirteen band line-up for a fiver is never more than a week away.
My love for RM Hubbert, Cry Parrot and Tattie Toes isn’t simply a matter of them being generous enough to turn up on Subcity for me: there seems to be a genuine renaissance in Glasgow music. The younger generation have embraced the DIY art-school cross-over like the characters in Social Sculpture, and the old boys – people my age – are finding new ways to play.
Frost and Fire happened upstairs at The Citizens. I’m hoping they’ll eventually make it to the main auditorium, and not just for the comfortable seats. Curated by Howie from Tattie Toes – who is also involved with TAG theatre company – it featured local vocal superstar Wounded Knee, Jarvis Cocker approved harpist Serafina Steer, the cheeky chappy of acoustic rock’n’roll Keith John Adams and Chinese multi-instrumentalist Marion Kenny, who got Hubbert up for a beautiful spot of string-on-string action. From the moment Reeve led an acapella invocation to spring, the evening was equal parts refreshing relaxation and musical imagination.
Steer was the headliner, but by the time she arrived, the audience had already been seduced into enjoying a laid-back, unpretentious take on folk and experimental music. Wounded Knee gigs are always special: he never seems to do the same thing twice. Using a backing track – well, cassette loop – allegedly from his grandad’s doo-wop outfit, he took a jaunty stroll around the voice that made the link between American soul and UK folk. Pointing out that “all music is soul music”, he invested Scottish traditional lyrics with the passion of a US gospel preacher. Intelligent, experimental and fun. Apparently, music doesn’t have to break my delicate ears to be provocative.
Marion Kenny’s obvious respect for her instruments’ tradition made her set a quick tour of Chinese music. Being utterly ignorant, I am not sure whether it comes from a folk or classical heritage: regardless, it is haunting and paints pictures of places I have never seen, but would love to visit. A fine come-down after Adams acoustic guitar rock’n’roll, which carried the energy of a four piece band on the back of Adam’s wild carry-on. For a moment, he recreated the thrill of early rock’n’roll before Kenny bathed us in beauty.
Steer is going to be one of those left-field singer-song writers who use an unexpected instrument to get to the heart, before addressing it with thoughtful, charming lyrics. She is not just another quirky dame with a big object between her legs: she is as charming as her songs suggest, making even her embarrassed pauses part of an authentic performance.
Frost and Fire is the sound of experimentalists growing older without losing their edge: dropping the noise, which is fun, and replacing it with a mellow sincerity. If Howie Reeve keeps on like this, he’ss soon be bridging that gap between theatre and music audiences. He’s Growing Audiences, the holy grail of arts organisations. Luckily, he, and his artists, are growing their souls at the same time. 

Scenography and Prague

Aside from those times when I noticed Kai Fisher or Kenny Miller on the programme – or when the set overshadowed the actors and script, like in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Peter Pan – I have rarely paid attention to the art of scenography. Being in Prague, and stumbling across their Quadrennial of Design and Space, I confess my ignorance. Like a good script, coherent choreography, stunning central performances, costume, set and staging are a crucial part of a “good production.” The joy of PQ12 reminded me that theatre need not be all about the people present.
Since PQ is in its twelfth edition – and it has taken almost half a century to reach it – it is one of the more comprehensive performance jamborees that make up the progress of administrative personnel around the globe. Despite discovering it by accident, and being the only Scottish critic  in the Czech Republic that week, once I got my laminated pass, I was greeted by other delegates as an old friend. Much as I enjoyed the ego-massage, it didn’t remove my suspicion of the sort of people who turn up at these events. Obviously well travelled, they all held posts that sounded like euphemisms for “no creative input.” I didn’t meet any of the directors, or actors, or dancers or visual  artists that are supposed to be learning from these events, except on the stalls.
Cynicism aside, PQ12 is massive and brilliant. Nearly every country I have ever heard of was represented – who would have thought Uruguay had a thriving, imaginative theatre? – and the only disappointment was the UK stall. Understaffed, and featuring only one Scottish entry, it did, at least, feature some work I had seen: the wonderful, immersive set for Kursch, which got the audience right under the waves and into the submarine. And while Scottish Dance Theatre’s contribution was cool, I did reflect that Glasgow has always had a strong tradition of director-scenographers. Stewart Laing, who has rescued a few weak scripts through his knowledge of Tramway’s spatial potential, and Kenny Miller, formerly of the Citizens and now freelance, are the first two examples I remember. For PQ13, I hope that the Independent Republic of Caledonia’s President For Life will lobby for a Scottish section.
Scenography, according to the brochure, is a rapidly expanding area. Divided into costumes and sets, it wanders off into areas of film, site response, visual art, exhibition. Reflecting this, PQ12 had intermittent performances, an outdoor village of installations and a relaxed attitude to definition. Consequently, the different countries played to their strengths. Mexico and the States packed their areas with designs, videos and props, like relics of the performances now rendered symbolic. The Czech Republic went for a mini-exhibition. Japan let its scenographers write their own eccentric show. Israel loaded the room with boxes of condoms.
Wandering around the displays was enough, and I became convinced that most plays would do better if they dropped all that acting, singing and dancing nonsense and concentrated on the cool stuff – evoking place through carpentry. I’ve been toying with the idea of the stage as a sacred space, and here was evidence of a spiritual materialism to fill that holy rectangle. 

Benny Hill

First memory
Benny Hill was banned in my house, because it was crude. However, one season, my mother’s former pupil became the choreographer of Hill’s Angels. The whole family was forced to watch it. Being a sensitive young man, I am not sure which sentence was worse.
First Revelation
Benny Hill discovered an absolute truth of comedy. Anything can be funny, if you speed it up and play the yakety-sax tune over the top. For confirmation of this theory, watch footage of me on a date at double speed. It is even used by NLP brainwashers as a way to distance the individual from bad memories.
First Critique
Grant Smeaton sees Benny Hill as a man always out of time. The start of his career saw him longing for end of the pier shows, where the comedian was king, courting countless dolly-birds. By the time ITV dropped his show, having released that he’d been doing the same gags since 1969 and they could save money by simply selling past series, he had almost turned full circle. The burlesque revival and post-feminism were being born, to salve his sexist sins.
Second Memory
The headmaster had a special assembly to tell us that slapping people on the head, contrary to last night’s television, was not funny. Especially when the class victim ended up in hospital after lunch-time’s antics. Kiss-chase, on the other hand, was okay, as long as nobody caught their clothes on a door knob or something, and ran around in their skidders.
Second Revelation
Smeaton looks surprisingly like Benny Hill, and can capture his mannerisms – the slightly bemused innocent on the brink of mischief, the lusting loser lover, the cunning idiot. This man is not to be trusted with bald headed men or French Maids.
Second Critique
The non-chronological episodes of this play mirror Hill’s own vaudeville background. If they are not all funny, or fail to be entirely tragic when Hill kicks the bucket, gets Oedipal or tries to keep up with Kenny Everett’s cruder reinvention of the smut’n’satire selection, they reflect the awkward, self-knowing humour of Hill himself, who often told shit gags knowing the humour was in getting away with it.
Third Revelation
Hill’s broadcast in 1969 was more popular than the live footage of the moon-landings. Television audiences were idiots before X-Factor.
Third Critique
A cast of three – Smeaton is always Hill – is enough to get the range of Hill’s comedy. The lack of deviation from the simple strategy – serious sidekick, dolly-bird and Hill – gives the play a consistency despite the jumping between eras while preventing the deeper analysis of Hill’s character.
Fourth Revelation
So popular was Hill in US prisons that they went on a riot when his show was moved to after their bedtime. This would have been funnier with yakety sax going on as old scores were settled and prisoners discovered the joys of contemporary art in using materials to hand as paint for new cell murals.
Fourth Critique
The attempt to rescue Hill from redundancy is undermined by the emphasis on his character as old-fashioned even for his time, a saucy seaside postcard that wasn’t funny after the reading on the rack.
Fifth Critique
Smeaton is being bold again. He is a restless theatre-maker, and brave enough to rescue the terminally unfashionable. This will be a hit at Fringe 2012.
Third Memory
The first time I ever saw a reconstruction of Weimar cabaret was on Benny Hill. At the time I was more interested in the bare leg of the Hill’s angel than the funny German accents. However, I still remember the line, sung by the angel. “I asked him about my marks. He said “I’ll give you seven out of ten.”
A prostitute joke before the watershed? And I don’t remember any puns from Jim Davidson, who was being a cheeky cockney chappy around the same time on ITV.  

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Latitude Day 3 Part 3

I am not going out in that rain. Even if Showstopper - The Musical is on in the cabaret tent, even if Camille O'Sullivan was waiting for me in a tiny venue by the river, where she would go down on one knee and promise to be a guest on my radio show. I have no pairs of socks left. My boiler suit - as it turns out, my festival fashion statement was more stupid than it sounds - is muddy. I have seen The Waterboys today. I interviewed 1927. I gave poor Gary McNair a big hug. I am having some time in the press tent, drinking coffee and blathering with the lovely Anthea from the festival team.

There are plenty of chances for me to meditate on my old age at Latitude. Not least, all those nostalgia bands that I remember as snappy young things. Why, there was that time when OMD were in the charts. And the day Mike Scott went folk on Fisherman's Blues. And I'll never forget the day Os Mutantes discovered tropicalia...

Most of all, that little whinging voice that does not like the mud.

There are many many other critical questions... has cabaret hit a wall? There has been a lack of cabaret acts in the cabaret tent this year. Bryony Kimmings may cross a line from Live Art, but she isn't burlesque. Prudentia Hart is three hours of multi-platform fun (okay, music and drama for those not as painfully pretentious as I am), but it is not a variety bill. Only tonight, in an evening curated by Dusty Limits, do I see a real cabaret show.

Oh, sorry: there was Ducky last night. That had Scottee, another one of my fascinations.

But it still stands: can cabaret offer enough artists to fill a tent for three days? Latitude has a sensible policy of refusing to book the same acts year after year, so it doesn't mean that there are no good acts... it might mean there are not enough.

Hang on, the rain has stopped. If I run, I might catch Frisky and Mannish.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Latitude Day 1, Part 1

Before I start to write, I need the right combination of chemicals in my bloodstream. Fortunately, those not provided by my body can be easily injected or snorted, or discovered in a spoonful of raw instant coffee. I tried to get my first evening at Latitude written up this morning - I was first at the press tent and everything. Unfortunately, it turned out that I needed to actually see a show to have something to inspire me.

I had hoped getting lost on the way to the Festival would help: Mr B helped up by not putting the right postcode into his Sat Nav. "It's looking rather quiet for the main route into a major festival," I pointed out. A silent u-turn, and the first aristocrat of Chap Hop had us back in a comfortable tail-back.
My prediction from Mr B's hour long set in the poetry tent - which, up to that point, had been like an illustrated lecture on why I hate poetry - is that this August will be the Fringe of Chap Hop. People will be wandering the Royal Mile humming Acid Ted and plaid will make an unexplained come-back. Mr B would not be funny if he didn't have such a detailed understanding of how hip-hop works: unlike most of the slam poetry boys, he has a flow as well as the ability to speak really fast in rhyme. Plus he gave me a lift from the station.

After failing to write anything coherent this morning, I popped down to the Faraway Forest (the twee name for one of the various stages here) and made contact with the National Theatre of Scotland. It bothers me that the NTS are being so good lately: even David Greig, whom I delighted in calling over-rated, just because it made me different to the other critics, has hot form twice this year. The NTS are invading Suffolk with The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart, a confident mash up of karaoke, Border Ballads, choreography and scripted theatre. Since it is usually performed in a pub, the transition to outdoor festival is easy. Until, as Ali Macrae reminds me, it is set in a Thurso pub, cut off from civilisation by winter snow.

Trying desperately to appear knowing and cool - and not give away my enthusiasm for both Macrae's music and Madeleine Worrall's sensual, witty performance as the titular heroine - I led us off to a shady groove where we swapped tales of Scottish critics, Govan bars and local sessions. Behind us, a performance of a Greek myth seems to be reviving The Brian Blessed School of Acting. They shout in unison and distract me from an anecdote about my family band and how Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out Of My Head is, actually, a self-referential masterpiece.

Minogue is important in Prudentia: Worrall's version exposes its gentle heart beneath the pulsing, shimmering glamour. Macrae and Worrall warmly discuss the way that folk music is used in the play, suggesting that the modern session can be found anywhere a karaoke machine has been installed. The mix of new and old, folk and pop, script and movement, humour and intensity make Prudentia an interesting herald of a specific Scottish style of performance. It's brilliantly written, too.

And so... is that Richard Dedomenici in the cabaret tent?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Daydreams Are Always Better

My legendary dislike of scripts - legendary in the sense of an exaggerated truth rather than something anyone knows, or cares, about - is based in the certainty that British theatre has been retarded by Shakespeare, and that words have been the default foundation of UK performance.

This certainty looks shakier when I check the cast biographies of Smith Dance Theatre's Agnes and Walter.Artistic director Neil Paris was part of Fabulous Beast, Michael Keegan Dolan's Irish dance powerhouse, while the performers include Dan Carnam, out of DV8, Fabulous Beast and Punchdrunk.The last twenty years has seen the rise of British Dance Theatre, where choreography has colluded with the script, integrating words and dance like the gifted child of primary school music and movement sessions.

My memories of music and movement, perhaps uniquely, involve my mother turning up and teaching my class to skip to Aiken Drum. Agnes and Walter, fortunately, is less of a Freudian minefield. Inspired by the film of Walter Mitty - one of my mother's favourites, Oedipus spotters - it casts light on the most effective way to preserve a long-term relationship: ignore it and dive into rich fantasy lives.

For Paris, Agnes and Walter is the culmination of an ambition to do something with Mitty: but while the original story led to the name become a synonym for a hopeless dreamer, Paris sees him as an archetype of the artist. Daydreaming may seem "a negative activity," he says. "But this is a vital ingredient of aspiration and development."

Rescuing Walter from his portrayal as a hopeless waster, Paris' vision is preoccupied with what lies beneath appearances, and the potential of the mind. Cool critic Donald Hutera saw an early version and was impressed by the way that the story became "a springboard from which to fashion a tender, quirky and wordless look at aspirations and disappointments."

The cast, increasingly rarely for The Fringe, spans generations as much as it acts as a record of the companies who wrested British theatre from the clammy dead hand of the script: when Hutera points out that the action is wordless, he is accounting for the reason behind its potential success in Edinburgh. In an international festival city, the language barrier is always a good thing to crack.

Jack Webb and Gareth K Vile

I first met Jack Webb in 2009, outside Dance Base, after a show by Iona Kewney. I couldn't talk that much - Kewney remains my single favourite dancer - but Webb was articulate and engaging. We meet up for coffee now and again, and I rant at him about how criticism is an art form. He listens quietly, then reminds me that he is the one who debuted at New Territories this year, has been touring his improvisations around Scotland and is heading off to work with Via Negativa, a wonderful gang of Live Art mischief makers from Central Europe. 

Before Webb takes on The Fringe - he has a show at Dance Base this year, I thought I could abuse our friendship one last time, and get an exclusive interview. He is rightly described as a rising star in the brochure, although I am not so sure about the quotes from other critics. It's not like I haven't praised him in reviews, and not just because I like him as a pal.

Vile: I was wondering how you ended up being a dancer. Remember when when we first met and bonded over Kewney? Up to that point, what was your dance history? Were you a ballet boy?

Webb: I have never been into ballet in the way that ballet boys are but I had my fair share of it whilst training. I discovered dance as a teenager through a local youth dance group and then I went to train at the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance in Dundee and since then I've been doing all sorts of things but I've never been a ballet boy, no.

Vile: You have revealed an interest in both improvisation and physical theatre... the obvious question is to ask what is the relationship between the dance training you did and the improvisation? And where did the interest in physical theatre come from - and is it just dance with a smart name?

Webb: The training i did involved both of those things but I think I really discovered it off of my own back by going to see work that fed me and inspired me because dance schools will only teach you what they think you need to know which is different at every school and of course continually developing my skills by actually doing it. I wouldn't say that my work is physical theatre because I'm not sure what physical theatre actually is. I don't like to label things in this way, it limits the work.

Vile: The actual fringe piece. I have seen you improvising lately - and I know this piece isn't just an extension of that work... how far is this choreographed , how much do you respond in the moment, and where does the music fit in?

Webb: With this show at the Fringe, I haven't choreographed anything. There are movements, situations and places on stage that always happen, that forms some of the structure to guide me through the 20 minutes because without that I would be lost but other than that I am respnding in the moment and trying to be as curious as possible on stage. Immediacy is everything with this work. I'm a huge fan of Joe Quimby's work and I asked him if he would record something for me and he said yes. Music is a huge driving force for me. it excites me and feeds what I'm doing and a lot of the things on stage are in response to the sound.

Vile: In earlier works  -  It's a Grand Thing To Get Leave To Live) and The Bravest Thing You Can Do Is Be Still pieces, you were about staging and props as tools in dance. Is that still there, or are you getting back to the body?

Webb: Props are still there and I'll tell you why. In solo works, for me props and objects serve the purpose of replacing people in a way. They proivide me with something to engage with and also I feel that the work is about the visual aspect as well as the movement. Design of space, costume and colour play a huge part in this work at the Fringe.

Vile: What do you like outside of dance? Don't say the Fuck Buttons because I want to publish this interview where my mum might read it. But what outside of dance influences when you make work, and what do these influences bring to your work?

Music and sound for me is a huge driving force. And also colour. This show has been influenced a lot by the colours that are present on stage because it somehow effects my mood and presence when creating and performing.

Vile: How is your relationship with ballet these days? Where are you getting those funky new moves from?

Webb: I haven't been to a ballet class in almost one year so we haven't really been on speaking terms for a while although I appreciate ballet a lot, especially Forsythe's early works that were all about distorting the form and pushing the physicality to new places.

The funky moves? Certainly not from ballet.

Vile: And finally - how is Via Negativa going for you?

Webb: Via Negativa is the happiest and most productive company I have worked with for a long time. Bojan, the director of the company, pushes us a lot to go beyond ourselves and we spend a lot of time talking so I'm not there to dance, infact I am acting more than anything and we have to be merciless with our feedback to material that we all create. it's a simple idea but it works. I'm very happy to be working with them.

The Alchemystorium

As The Edinburgh Fringe approaches, I am trying to empty my inbox before it reaches critical mass. Already I have permanently deleted last year’s Fringe  PR, an entire sequence of emails from a failed romance and most of my warnings from an American astrologer than I must buy this magic pendant to avoid further financial mayhem. In the meantime, I am replying to every company who have the words “physical theatre” in their press release.
Gomito Productions got my attention because they seem to be dealing with at least three of my current preoccupations: coffee, love and devised performance. The Alchemystorium – the name is cool enough to get me excited – promises supernatural service from a Total Theatre Awards nominated company.
Artistic Director Amelia Bird has eschewed more conventional definitions to name Gomito’s style as Visual Theatre. “Although our work has a lot of physical elements and we often talk loosely about a physical style,” she explains. “I think the term 'physical theatre' conjures up something dance based and acrobatic: we try to avoid setting up those expectations. Similarly we only produce original plays, but we wouldn't say we created 'new writing'- although technically we do. The term has become so much a part of the marketing language of text-based plays that it would be confusing!” 
I claim to hate Aristotle, but spend most of my time inventing new categories of performance. While I justify this as a useful guide for my reader, it can be an excuse for me to avoid actually talking about content. Bird, fortunately, articulates a far more interesting reason for innovating descriptions.

“The  term visual theatre is so broad:  for us, it means theatre which could include puppetry, choreography and integral design,” she emphasizes.  “It means a sensory spectacle where aesthetics are not the backdrop to a text, they are means by which a story is told. Like much theatre jargon I doubt that it speaks that clearly to every audience member, but the word 'visual' is at least a pointer that you shouldn't come expecting a radio play.”
Indeed, The Alchemystorium is a wordless play – a blessed relief in a Fringe that has as many exciting new scripts as my front porch has unopened bills. But music – both original and familiar – fills the silence. “Around eighty per cent is soundtracked:  we love music for creating atmosphere. Our composer Philippa Herrick is an integral part of the process of making a new play. Unusually for Gomito we're using a few existing, well known love songs in The Alchemystorium, partly for comic effect and partly to create the feeling of fantastical, nostalgic romance which is important for one of our characters.”
Bird began the creative process with a clear vision. “I wanted to make a play about love,” she says, before adding that Gomito’s history encouraged her to seek a new approach.  “We’ve  made quite a few pieces with an ensemble of multitasking storyteller/puppeteers, and  I was keen to experiment with a new type of character to guide the audience. Thinking about characters who could entertain an audience, experience love from an unusual perspective and logically bring objects to life to create some fantastical theatrical visuals I pitched the Gomito team the idea of 'Theatre Witches'; part clown, part witch, three characters who make love potions.” 
From here, process took over, Bird expands. “We devise shows very playfully and improvised with characters and love scenes and an assortment of magical objects before structuring and re-structuring and a storyline.” This devising approach is strongly collaborative.  “We shared experiences of romances, friendships, and working in coffee shops as well as theatre, music, artwork, comedy, circus and films which have conveyed love well.”
The British theatre has made a fetish out of the script as a blueprint, and Bird is almost apologetic for her style. “It sounds horribly disorganised on paper, but it's actually a very rigorous process to generate a wealth of material, before weeding out unclear ideas as the story passes the checkpoint of each deviser.” Even the original inspiration eventually dissolved. “The witch characters dropped away and love potions mutated into coffee.”
It isn’t just an intellectual taste for this sort of magical story-telling, eclectic creation and imaginative content that excited me about The Alchemystorium: it is the powerful use of these aspects to home in on a subject that is familiar and make it uncanny. The lack of spoken word becomes, in itself, a fascinating alternative to the blather of most plays, and a rich source of meaning.

“Although we decided that the strange characters of have lived together so long that they don't talk, we also made the decision that if they needed to they could talk,” Bird clarifies. “This led us to using quite a lot of gestural noises like sighs or laughs. In rehearsal we worked on making sure that there was no point where an audience would think this would be better conveyed by speaking. Fingers crossed that we've succeeded in making the wordlessness a highlight, not a source of frustration!”