Challenging and alternative dance at Splayed Festival

The Place and Wellcome Collection, London
June 6 & 7, 2018

Alexandra Gray

This was the first ever Splayed Festival, curated by dance artist Amy Bell with the mission of sharing and disrupting ideas of gender, desire, performance and power. Incorporating discussion and a free zine as well as performance, the festival offered challenging, alternative, and experimental artists a platform to express and reimagine queerness through the moving body.

The Wednesday June 6 double bill opened with FIGURED by Sheena McGrandles. Beginning with just a hand, again and again five fingers curl themselves around a wall, teasingly coming into and out of view. As the movement repeats and builds, the dancers gradually enter the space from behind the wall; first a foot, then a knee, then the profile of a face. The rhythm of hide and reveal is hypnotic, and precise as a metronome.

As a brief encounter between two women is paused, rewound and replayed over the course of 35 minutes, multiple narratives emerge, the relationship between them (although hinted at in the programme notes), remaining ambiguous. At times, movements broken down into tiny slivers became bizarre, while the attention to detail makes them compelling to watch. One dancer repeatedly touches her hair, or both pause mid-stride, hands and eyelids quivering like old CCTV footage.

In today’s visual and technological age where we can pause live TV, swipe past somebody we don’t find attractive, and edit relationships out of existence, McGrandles’ choreography is highly suggestive. What we see, what we miss, and how our time and our relationships are increasingly disrupted and interrupted is of increasing concern. Formally it was a simple idea, in practice it was very effective, and executed with technical skill.

Hilde Ingeborg Sandvold’s solo, Dans, for Satan/Dance, dammit! divided the audience at the Aerowaves festival in Sofia in March. Seeing it again reminded me of what a watchable performer Sandvold is, but while the dance is provoking and entertaining, I’m still uncertain as to what her point is. Given that she describes the piece as “a question mark set as an exclamation mark,” I suspect she’s happy to remain ambiguous.

Visually she’s a riot in orange leggings, animal print shirt and plastic crown, and her movements are just as anarchic. She claps, crawls, screams, and yelps, then glares accusingly at the audience. She psyches herself up to pirouette like a petulant child, then nods with satisfaction. She takes up a brush and paints ‘Dick is GoD’ on the backdrop, arching her back orgasmically as she makes the final curve with her brush for the capital D. It’s a tensely funny moment. By the end, she’s covered in milk and grasping a huge sausage, managing to make visual references to both pornography and the statue of liberty, which is no mean feat. As she removes her top to reveal the second half of the statement, ‘but the pussy has the power’ painted on her torso, it’s a climax of sorts, but is she making feminist statements or mocking them? The jury is out on that one, but one thing is certain, Sandvold is doing exactly what she wants.

Slug Horizonsby Florence Peake and Eve StaintonPhoto Anne Tetzlaff
Slug Horizons
by Florence Peake and Eve Stainton
Photo Anne Tetzlaff

The following evening, Thursday June 7, self-titled ‘dance witch’ Charlie Ashwell’s Banishing Dance took place in the Reading Room of the Wellcome Collection. Promisingly described as a cross between a ritual, a participatory performance and a dance, it in fact features each of these elements in turn without unifying them into a greater whole, the even pacing of the combination of talking, activity and dance resulting in a very flat feeling performance.

A striking figure in a flowing red dress, Ashwell began by announcing to the audience seated around her that she was weary of the mainstream narrative which suggests that in order to empower women, we should focus on celebrating ‘strong women’. The audience were invited to write something they wanted to banish on a piece of paper, and after some silence and scribbling, these were placed in a bowl in the centre of the space. They were then told to make a circle holding hands. Reading from a tablet computer, Ashwell listed different ‘types’ of women, and the audience were asked to squeeze the hand of their neighbour when they heard a description they recognised.

It was an interesting collection of images: anxious women, women who’d like to make more art, chronically ill women, women who can’t knit, to name a few examples, and there were moments of laughter, nods of recognition, and thoughtful silences. Following this the audience was asked to sit again, and Ashwell, again reading from her tablet, gave a speech about her gender identity, before showing us the piece of paper on which she’d written what she wanted to see banished: The Gender Binary.

So far, so right on. But this earnest lecture had no dramatic pacing or tension, and as she proceeded to take papers from the bowl, read out what people had written, and snip them in half with scissors, the energy dropped, and my interest wained. The action was repetitive, and the list of things to be banished very predictable.

These kinds of sharing-circle rituals have their place, and I have no doubt that many people find them helpful. But as Ashwell held aloft a piece of paper on which someone had written the word ‘patriarchy’, and portentously snipped it in half, it made for a rather feeble display of preaching to the converted.

There was some tension at last when she danced. As she snipped through the final paper it seemed to send a jolt through her spine and she slipped onto the floor, rolling and undulating with trance-like focus. She hopped and spun through the space, weaving impishly amongst the chairs and bookshelves, sometimes slicing the air with her arms, sometimes smiling wryly, as though the dance was still part of a conversation with us. She finished abruptly, thanked us and bowed. This was an interesting and generous piece, but in performance it was not as progressive or cathartic as I suspect it intended to be.

More genuinely disruptive and radical was the performance that followed later that evening at the Place. Florence Peake and Eve Stainton’s Slug Horizons explores the expressive possibilities for women’s bodies, taking Peake and Stainton’s non-monogamous, but clearly intimate and fond relationship as a stimulus for material.

Slug Horizons is as much an art installation as a dance piece. The audience enters to the pumping beats of Donna Summer’s ecstatic disco classic I Feel Love to find Peake and Stainton, naked from the waist down, lolling on the floor and ambling casually around the space. Soon, everyone is seated in the round on psychedelic slugs, soft stockings of fabric stuffed with random pieces of multi-coloured foam. Three fluid-filled stockings hang from the ceiling, and pots of paint and pens are scattered on the floor. The overall design is playful, tactile and sensuous, with a hint of the bizarre, and these qualities suffuse the work as a whole.

Peake and Stainton begin by decorating one another’s thighs, buttocks and vulvas with paint, fabric, and gaffer tape, turning each other into chaotic collages which privilege their own interest and pleasure above any mainstream aesthetic. They stand and carefully release a small stopper from each of the stockings hung from the ceiling, gently squeezing them to start a steady drip of viscous fluid onto the floor. It is a strikingly suggestive image that, in the hands of less skilful artists, might have strayed into gratuitous titillation. However, the choreographers are mature artists, and technically accomplished enough to strike just the right balance.

The movement section, where they scissor each other with awkward care and evident effort, is a powerful metaphor for a complex relationship even as it also serves as a radical performance event that disrupts notions of normative sexual practice. Complete with speaking (inventing absurd and meticulously detailed fantasies together) panting, and squelching, Peake and Stainton convey well how unpredictable, idiosyncratic and humorous authentic female sexuality can be, and do so with assured wit, great style, and mastery of their mediums.

The festival also featured the London premiere of Violence by FK Alexander, whose (I Could Go on Singing) Over the Rainbow became a cult hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016.