The Choreolab experiments were made in January 2018, with a large group of performers testing choreographic interventions in public space.
This week-long investigation culminated in a short inventory of strategies gleaned from experiments in the studio and in the field. Some of these are documented as photo and video.
Footnote Dance is a 30 year old contemporary dance company based in Wellington, New Zealand. Choroelab is their yearly open-call summer-school for dancers and movement professionals, bringing local and international teachers to share technique and practice with young professionals.
The 2018 edition ran for two weeks in January with 40 participants led by five guest artists, including daily classes with Greek dance pedagogue Vangelis Legakis, artistic practice workshops led by Belgian-based choreographer and performance maker Kate McIntosh* alongside myself, week two was led by Berlin-based New Zealand choreographer Josh Rutter along side Auckland-based choreographer Kristian Larsen.
Kate McIntosh is an artist I have established a dialogue with over a number of years since first seeing her stage work in 2010, so this workshop was a chance to share and influence each others habitual practice. Kate focussed her introduction on object based manipulations, a system of play evolving from arrangement, rearrangement and derangement. My introduction drew attention to the politics of public space and the concept of agonistic pluralism (referring specifically to the political theories of Chantal Mouffe) in redistributing authority through performance. From here we looked for common threads and mutual interests toward a laboratory style investigation.
The public space location used was the newly completed Pukeahu National War Memorial Park at the top of Tory Street in Wellington. The dominating carrillon overlooks the site flanked by public sculpture, an underground city traffic bypass and the war memorial itself. The park, which received several design awards since its inauguration in 2015, is a carefully considered mixture of formal and informal spaces, making it a great laboratory for public intervention.
Some concepts were introduced and trialled in the studio, such as ‘naming things’ (metaphorical the labelling of objects to find new meanings), or ‘performing words’ (self-identifying in a binary terms to a set of questions), then later transformed and tested again in the public space. There were 40 interpretations of each operation, which at times limited the feedback mechanisms, so I will endeavour to discuss a handful of the approaches that best impacted the practical and symbolic authority of space.
A repeated action or event, no matter how small, allowed a very clear reading of the space and time. We found that transversing the entire space with a repeated action, either by an individual or many, enabled an the attention to be drawn and manipulated over time very effectively. The repetition also signalled that the action was performative without being overtly theatrical. In this sense it was a good choreographic tool because the operation was endlessly transmutable and encouraged a focussed attention that integrated well with daily usages of the space by the public.
Sound in space
Sound activation worked in different ways, firstly by suppressing or drawing attention away from other senses the sound revealed hidden events. Secondly, adding sound or creating absence of sound gave a renewed spatial presence. This could be achieved with the smallest of sounds (the dropping of an object on the ground for example), which became a dynamic tool for enlarging or diminishing perception of the space.
Bodies in trouble
The normative body was given a renewed presence through creating some form of crisis. The ‘body in trouble’ became a useful label to unsettle the space, creating an urgency or tension that heightened spatial dimensions and symbolic qualities. By paying attention to disrupting the functionality of a space or an object, the body in trouble formed a new relationship with the environment.
Acknowledging the many different boundaries was a very simple operation with a significant impact. Formal boundaries in purpose-made theatres or performance spaces are commonly well defined and tend not to change during a performance, however the public space is full of hidden boundaries that shifted the expectations of the observer as to how the space was defined. It highlighted the subjectivity of any given perspective, constantly reframing the action through acknowledging different materials or spatial elements.
Revealing the symbolic order
Perhaps the least immediately successful strategy yet still a practical tool. A functional action or event is easily understood, whereas a symbolic action may work on a subconscious or abstract level. However this did make for a useful strategy in improvisation, shifting the performers attention away from a purely functional relationship with the environment and offering an instant alternative reading of the space. This approach appeared to be the most overtly theatrical.
Being the Public
This was almost an afterthought in our planning, however several participants were drawn to this investigation, exploring the idea of the disruptive public or the anarchic influence that shifted the attention and problematised the space. The public were sometimes not being the public, which was a valuable observation for public space when we assume that the purpose of the space is acknowledged in this way. Non-participation is a powerful political position and one that Butler (2013) claims is a precursor to self-organisation.
*Kate McIntosh is a New Zealand artist, now living in Brussels, whose work straddles the boundary between dance and performance. Kate grew up in Wellington and finished her dance training at QUT, Brisbane. After graduation she joined Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre and then moved to Europe where she has been living since 2000, directing and performing in a number of solo and group works. These highly individual performances – which are a mixture of spoken text, visual imagery and physicality – have toured through Europe to major theatres and festivals. Regular invitations have included the Southbank Centre (London), the Centre Pompidou (Paris), Hebbel Am Ufer (Berlin), Kaaitheatre (Brussels) and the Theaterfestival Spielart (Munich). In 2011 she returned to New Zealand to create Hullapolloi on Footnote, with collaborator Jo Randerson. In addition to her work for the stage, Kate is engaged in many other artistic projects. She has directed short videos and multi-screen video installations that have screened at festivals and galleries the world over. Kate is also a founding member of Poni, the notorious Belgian performance collective and punkrock band.