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Home » dance

Movementscapes at Juncture, Yorkshire Dance

Submitted by on March 10, 2014 – 8:04 pm13 Comments


I must spend three or four hours of every day day tramping the streets of Leeds. Mostly it’s utilitarian journeys – getting from A to B via P, U and B – but I walk a lot for amusement too. Last week I led a walk around Holbeck (well, Temple Works but I normally cajole the tour to experience the surrounding area too) and explored a section of the City Connect route, as well as having a snoop around the proposed Hunslet Stray. So when I heard about a walk to Hyde Park Picture House as part of Yorkshire Dance’s Juncture program I thought, why not! And as the film showing at Hyde Park was All This Can Happen, about The Walk, a short story written by one of my literary heroes, Robert Walser, what could be better?

It might have been a good idea to read the blurb in the Juncture brochure first. The walk was advertised as a “choreographed journey through the city (that) will heighten our awareness of urban choreographies and play with our kinetic and perceptual experience of the space.” I confess that I’m utterly clueless about choreography. And I’m not exactly sure what “kinetic” experience is either – I’m sure I must have had one at some point, though I was most probably propping up the bar at The Foghorn and Ferret and it was so noisy I missed it.

Anyway we gathered outside the Yorkshire Dance building and Vanessa Grasse went through the rules of the walk – no talking, no mobile phones, and no pictures. All fine by me. That’s my normal urban walking method. Can’t stand people who are constantly yapping on their iphone, tapping their iPod, humming along to iTunes, strutting around like the big iAm. That’s not how to walk in the city.

Then Vanessa asked us to close our eyes. Went through a centreing routine with the group, bringing attention to our breath, focusing awareness on our balance, taking mindful notice of how our feet were planted on the street.

It was at this point that I realised this wasn’t a “walk”. This was a performance. And I was surrounded by performers. The one thing I know about performers is they think everyone is as interested in performing as they are – they tend to believe we all want to join in the performance.

Trouble is we aren’t and we don’t.

For a couple of long minutes while everyone was shut-eyed, collecting themselves and channeling energies down to their toes, I considered slipping away for a sneaky pint at The Wardrobe. I could easily catch them up later. I really wanted to see the film.

But I decided to persevere. What could they make me do? I know how to walk and I could cross this city blindfold … I’m not after an ACE grant to make that into a performance piece, btw.

We set off, thirty or so of us, silently, past the Aagrah and over the decked plaza next to Munro House. I’m not used to being in the midst of so many people travelling together – my lack of side and low vision makes me anxious that I’ll stand on someone’s toes or trample a small stray animal or child – and the first thing I did was to trip on an empty bottle of Mountain Gay and send it skittering across the wooden slats.

Still, it’s nice to know we have the better class of street drinker in Quarry Hill.

Vanessa had told us all to cross the roads together. I knew this was going to be tricky at the Playhouse crossing. The green man lasts for five seconds here and it’s a dreadfully aggressive road – the traffic allows for no hesitation or distraction. Our group assembled at the first push button of the pelikan crossing, to the left with our backs to the Playhouse. We were headed to the right, towards Eastgate. Another smaller group had gathered at the right hand push button and were looking as if they wanted to get to the bus station. Clearly there was a criss-cross of conflicting paths and a tangled knot of desire-lines. As the green man flashed I made for the other side as fast as I could – I am on the provisional, armed wing of the pedestrian struggle, I don’t hang around dithering like a limping liberal – and watched the ensuing melee with some glee I have to say. Street ballet became something of a street brawl.

We crossed to the fountain-bereft traffic circus, passed the old dole office where in the ‘70s and ‘80’s a formidable member of the Worker’s Revolutionary Party shrieked her prediction of the impending demise of the capitalist system every Thursday morning before repairing to the cafe on the corner for builder’s tea and white toast, then swung left up to the old bus station.

In the station car park behind the sex shop we stopped and Vanessa’s assistants handed out a small slip of paper:

Watch people and movement passing by.

Observe the rhythm, the pauses, what is moving and what is not. Notice random and obvious relationships between different things.

The space is performing for you.

Witness two or more performances, decide when they end, then give them a title.

This instruction completely stumped me. The first half I was fine with, but when it got to the performance bit … how would I know? I wouldn’t know where to begin to talk about what I was seeing in terms of performance, I’m not in the performance club. I could tell you some history about the place, the old bus station, the Hellenic Cafe, the fabulously shabby record shop, the place where I bought my first real log fire. I could deliver a rant about recent developments – does it deserve to be demolished to make way for a shiny happy shopping centre? And I could make a couple of random observations – notice the chimneys on the old Chinatown building resemble the figures in a Jacob Kramer painting in the Leeds Art Gallery (The Day of Atonement – I did say my eyes don’t work so well!) And look at how the street drinking culture here is so different to where we just left, all cans of cheap, proprietary lager and catering bottles of cider. But performance? I don’t see it.

Next we head through The Grand Arcade – after negotiating four of five lanes of traffic – past Handpicked Hall with the sad sign in an empty window informing us that “We have gone up in the world” and an arrow pointing higher up the arcade. The arcade had Blondie’s Atomic belting out. Hard to remain silent when Debbie Harry is singing, I always find.

Another two sets of pelican crossings and we are outside Belgrave Music Hall and all I can think about is the plan to make this space a bit more friendly and social and human scale so I miss Vanessa’s instruction to pick up a stick from the bit of grass at the back of the old Register Office (is that still there?) Then we go past Hume House – a classic 1980’s dole office that I’m sure has been the set of many a realist drama – and turn left around the back of the Arena. I’ve never seen the business end of the Arena and it’s actually rather striking with its Space 1999 aesthetic, all gleaming pipes and jutting steel.

There’s an event at The Arena and the plaza outside is full of little kids in Disney costumes – mainly princesses and Spidermen – and people selling pink glittery balloons. The place is full of colour and squealing children and smiling parents. It’s like an explosion in a lucky bag factory. Then we cross the road, onto Providence Place, where I spot an old municipal gas lamp (I had a recurring nightmare about the lamp at the end of grandma’s street when I was a kid, and I shivered when I passed the one here) then we turn into the underpass. The kids don’t notice the people sleeping against the walls, snuggled together in the middle of the day in sleeping bags and hoodies, and the parents pretend not to too. Outside on a bank of grass there are empty blue plastic bottles of White Lightning scattered amongst clumps of tab ends.

We enter the BBC building by an entrance I’ve never used before and suddenly we are in performance mode again, walking backwards, staring toward the Merrion Centre. A Yorkshire Post headline flashes across my mind, 16 stone, size 15 blind guy tramples tiny performance artist in freak juncture accident; ACE launch public enquiry, and I try to keep my distance. Actually I’m more interested in the new Leeds Met student accommodation, and start thinking what a change it is that the unis are building student flats in the city centre. It’s a good thing.

Then we lay down on concrete, which is hard and dusty and ant-infested, then we have to stand up close to the BBC building and contemplate a moment. All I can think of is “Corten” and wonder if any of these performance people know what it is they are actually looking at. Then I suddenly realise that the texture of the street facing features on the multi-storey car park opposite is exactly the same as the pseudo-granite kitchen surface we had when I was a student in Hyde Park – which is a bit weird.

As we move away I notice a picture in South facing window round the corner advertising some kind of city flat. The photo has all the colour bleached out of it and the flat seems to be made out of lilac ectoplasm.

Another couple of roads and we are standing by a tree. Tattered carrier bags hang from every bough.

Then we are off down the street at the back of Blackwell’s. Bad graffiti, overflowing bins, takeaway cartons, discarded slippers, cans of Carlsberg, cans of Fosters, cans of coke, starbucks cups, Nero cups, fag buts, banana skins, tea bags, crisp packets, biscuit packets, a bike wheel, potato peelings, Tesco bags …

Through the university next and up the metal stairs to St George’s Field. There’s a notice at the bottom warning “We can’t allow ball games” and “dogs are not allowed to Foul the space” I ruminate for a second who is not allowing and why they chose to capitalise that nasty verb?

At a rough guess around a third of the funereal statuary in St George’s is a standard urn draped with cloth. Twenty per cent are tall, bare, granite spikes. And there’s a solitary angel, beheaded and handless – which got me wondering, why are angels uniformly depicted in art as female and wispy when in the bible they are male and make Mike Tyson look like a wimp?

There’s a beautiful park bench in the middle dedicated to a mathematician with a fabulously Russian name. Your average park bench is a marvel of understated beauty and strict utility, and it hasn’t been surpassed as an example of social seating. I wish our council planners would come and sit with me on this old bench. It’s quite perfect.

Out of St George’s Field and across Hyde Park.

Crocuses and bedding plants the names of which I never learned. Lots of young people enjoying the fine spring weather. A churn of mud at the edge of the footpath.

We break into a run. When I say we I mean they. I feel a bit sorry for the assistants who have to hang back shooting me despairing looks, but sorry, there’s a principle involved. I don’t run. Ever. If I’d known there was running I’d have stayed in the pub and got the bus.

We get to Hyde Park Picture House. We go upstairs to the balcony. I sit as far back as I can – not being anti-social, I see better at a distance – and there’s a bit of a discussion. I don’t say anything. My guess is that me and the performers have been on an entirely different walk, and that’s interesting but I’m not sure how to articulate it. It was fun, and I’m glad I went, but I know I’ll never be able to answer any of the questions on Vanessa’s cards. That’s just not how I engage with the city.

Does that even matter?

Do I have to perform in order to appreciate performance?

I have to admit that’s why I’m wary of going to events like Juncture. I’m just not one of them, and don’t want to be.

I’m just too scared.

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  • DrKMcK says:

    Nice piece, Phil.
    Your performance is writing with a sharpened view.

    • Phil Kirby Phil Kirby says:

      Ha, you caught me out.

      I think performance on stage suits the extroverts and show offs, and performance on the page suits the introvert … I just wish there was a bit more equality and we quiet types had more chance.

      • Vanessa Grasse says:

        Hi Phil, thanks for your review I really like your writing style and your honest view. I just wanted to point out that I wasn’t trying to make people perform, those physical proposition were more about trying to be more aware of our own body and physicality and being in the moment…as I believe this can be very beneficial for many different reasons which we could discuss with a lovely cup of tea sometimes.

        I also think that everything you wrote here does actually answer my card…the word ‘performance’ in that card refers to moments in time that we might capture..and you seemed to have captured lots of moments.

        By the way you were not surrounded by performers, there were people from many different backgrounds and it is interesting how everyone relates with the city in a different way. Focusing on embodiment does not mean switching off our social sensibility and engagement. I am not interested at all in perceiving the city as a mere aesthetic show.
        It would be lovely to chat more about it at some point.

        Some of those people you feel so not one of them are often into socially engaged practice more that you might think.

        All the best

        • Phil Kirby Phil Kirby says:

          Hi Vanessa, I had a great time. I do think people relate to the city in very different ways – I remember standing in front of the BBC building and having to fight my urge to lecture about the history and properties of the rusty material, wondering what everyone else was thinking about.

          Don’t take me too seriously. I do have a genuine horror of being dragged on stage and asked to join in – I like my fourth wall built of reinforced concrete.

          A cup of tea would be nice, I’m always around.

  • Great article. Your style makes me smile. I like the bit – “Then we lay down on concrete”. Would love to have gone just to watch you and your face. A performance in its own right.

    • Phil Kirby Phil Kirby says:

      It was great fun … obviously I turn it into comedy, that’s my performance. I’m just the guy who turns up and doesn’t get it.

      Btw, there will be pictures somewhere online of me reclining on a slab of concrete. And staring at a sheet of Corten.

  • Malú says:

    And there I was thinking you were having a great time, Phil!
    Your writing always makes me smile :)

  • Glad to read this, Phil, but rather than not getting it, it sounds like you experienced a lot on the walk, even enjoying aspects of it. Personally I would have liked slightly more coverage of the various drinks bottles and cans you passed on the way and perhaps reviews of the pubs you wished you’d been to instead.


    • Phil Kirby Phil Kirby says:

      You can often tell where you are in a city – as well as track the changes in population – by the rubbish. In the part of Leeds I know best the streets positively tinkle with cans of Tyskie.

      And I’d have liked to go into the Packhorse and see the iron Templar Cross that Malu mentioned in her last piece.

  • Brighid Webster says:

    I enjoyed this immensely. I have been, for many years fascinated by the connoisseur of the street , the urban explorer – the flaneur. What struck me most about this performance was the ‘Britishness’ of it all. Here in Beirut, where cars seem programmed to kill all pedestrians and where there are no traffic lights (Well there are but no one takes any notice of them) anarchy prevails. No group could ever cross a street together. Life is lived on the street – from Syrian refugees to pavement holes caused by bomb blasts. The city has no ‘Health and Safety’ signage. I lked the dichotomy of ‘introvert’/'extrovert’ and, through this writing, felt able to take part in the performance.Also the humour appealed to me immensely.
    I know this was not a performance of the flaneur, but I think this quote of Baudelaire is apt:
    ‘…a mirror as vast as the crowd itself:or a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of life…’
    I will be visiting Leeds before the end of 2014 and both the performance piece and this writing has been inspirational in my decision.

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