A sonic journey: Dollhouse by Bill Coleman and Gordon Monahan

Dance Base, Edinburgh
August 15, 2017

Róisín O’Brien


“I’m excited to see this, they needed extra people for the tech,” one of the ushers explains to me as she dashes off before the first showing of Dollhouse. Entering into the performance space, this comment comes as no surprise. The world of Dollhouse, from dancer Bill Coleman and composer Gordon Monahan, is a haphazard, cluttered (though not necessarily messy) world of innumerable, diverse objects and uncountable possible scenarios where things can be knocked over, broken or stepped on.

Dollhouse firstly begs the mundane question ‘whose dance floor is this?’, for it is thoroughly scratched, beaten and scraped as Coleman moves through his environment. It begs the more philosophical question: ‘is this a performance?’ Dollhouse wants and rewards a wandering eye and a superficial gaze that allows itself to be distracted, drawn in by a new sound here, a rolling object off to the side, or a change in lighting over there.

Coleman begins awkwardly on stage, watched by Monahan on the left and a technician on the right. As he tries to communicate, speak, or move, popping, snapping noises explode over his body and under his suit. The audience flinch, amused but tentative, as he starts to strip and walk over and through pieces of glass, the textures of the environment latching on to him.

Coleman is not always the instigator in the piece. Monahan at one point applies sensors to Coleman’s skin, the vibrations of which travel along wires and out through a speaker, before he moves over to an elaborate cooking apparatus. Vibrating pans are filled with water by Monahan to produce grating, metallic sounds: while it all appears random, it is amazing how Monahan can stop and start the music at will.

As well as asking the audience to move through the environment, to not stick to one place or meaning, Dollhouse also takes the audience on a journey through their sonic memories. I was struck by the familiarity of the sounds, despite the visual and mechanical difference. Plunging water onto pots and pans recalls the sort of grand, sweeping musical moments of dramatic intensity in Hollywood cinema; the distorted noises from the sensors of Coleman’s skin call to mind an alien invasion from a HG Wells novel. Where do sounds normally come from? What noises are we used to? What are we used to as pleasant?

There are a fair few walk outs. Dollhouse does not provide answers for its audience. But it is an enjoyable event in its own way, sonically compelling and visually intriguing, an hour of curious, intrepid meanderings through an intricately designed environment.

Dollhouse continues to August 27. Click here for details.