Best of BE Festival at Slung Low

Michael Millward gets to see the Best of The Birmingham European Festival at The HUB…

The Birmingham European Festival (BE Festival) brings together new and experimental theatre from across Europe in the midlands city. The Best of BE Festival tour as its name suggests brings the best of the BE Festival to other parts of the United Kingdom. That tour often includes a visit to pay ‘what’s right for you’ theatre The Hub at Slung Low in Leeds.

This year the Best of BE Festival Tour includes three thirty minute performances covering dance, multi discipline performance and comedy, that all by accident or design, I care not, gave me a new perspective on everyday issues.

The first performance of the evening is Vacuum, an experimental dance piece created by Philippe Saire, who is widely regarded as one of Europe’s leading exponents of experimental movement visual arts.

I am not quite sure what to expect. The stage is in complete darkness, except for two strip lights suspended horizontally to create the top and bottom of a window frame in the centre of the stage.

There is a sound, something unlike music but it is gently relaxing.

In the window appears a misty image, indiscernible but there is something there. It disappears, then reappears slightly moved and slightly stronger, but no more identifiable. More unworldly shapes start to emerge from the darkness between the strips of light. It is difficult to decipher what I am looking at, or perhaps it is an optical illusion, brought about by my concentrating on the space between the lights.

Slowly the shapes of individual parts of a man’s body start to appear. Naked but completely without sexual reference, it is like watching the movements of an Olympic gymnast, but only being able to see one limb, one joint, one toned muscle. It is a human body without humanity, until an emotionless face appears from the darkness. The emergence of a face creates the feeling of having been discovered invading the dancers private space, in an almost voyeuristic way. It is only with the face that the body gains humanity or perhaps a personality.

The performance continues with the changing positions of the two male bodies in relation to the light creating focus and shadows that highlight the structure of different body parts. The hands emerge in isolation exaggerating their size and showcasing their finely carved structure akin to those of a Michelangelo marble.

Philippe Saire, has created a work in which human movement through black holes and shards of light is carefully, calculated, changing the way I am looking at these anonymous human bodies. As the title suggests it is as if the dancers, Philippe Chosson and Gyula Cserepes are floating as in a vacuum.

I did not know what to expect and so I was not disappointed. Vacuum is a performance that rewards an open mind. It is something that both defied logic: How can I be looking down at dancers when they are clearly in front of me? How can a naked man in the foetal position be rotating in mid-air without any signs of physical support? Vacuum also made me realise that without a face, a human body is nothing more than the sum of all its visible elements, skin, bones, muscles, but it lacks humanity, so if I look at a body without acknowledging the face perhaps I also lack humanity?

After a short break during which the stage is cleared and left as a blank space the second performance commences. Situation with Outstretched Arm uses performance and text to challenge the audience to examine the symbols that we have in our lives and the power that we allow those symbols to have over us.

Throughout history humans have placed value in symbols giving them the power to represent what we think and how we feel about ourselves, other people, our environment, the future, the past and how we interact with the world.

Remove the association that gives the symbol its power and all you are left with is a thing, whether it be a diamond, a cross or a badge, a process, a habit, or as in the case of this performance a gesture. After all, that is all raising your right arm is, a gesture, a physical movement. But when you give that gesture a name, the Hitler Salute, you create something with the power to evoke a wide range of powerful emotions, even in people who have no direct experience of the era of Nazi power.

Situation with Outstretched Arm, starts with an explanation of the physiology of creating that gesture. Who’d have thought it would take so many muscles to raise your right arm, it’s almost as many as it takes to smile!

With a single performer on stage maintaining this gesture throughout the performance, an unseen German voice, with English language surtitles above the stage narrates the history of the gesture, from its first recorded usage to its most recent, as that symbol of Nazi power. With that association, the use of German as the language of the narration only seems to emphasise the negativity that this gesture creates.

There is precious little for the performer to do other than maintain the pose as the narration proceeds through an explanation of how what has become known as the Hitler Salute was appropriated somewhat reluctantly by the Nazi’s from Mussolini’s Italian fascists. Apparently, they didn’t get on.

As each chapter of the story unfolds the power of the symbol is diminished a little bit more until the performer on stage takes over from the commentary.

Images of the outstretched arm salute are an increasing feature of news reports from across Europe as extremist right wing political groups start to gain confidence and prominence in a way unseen since the 1930’s. Within this context, it is undoubtedly brave for a German director Oliver Zahn to create a cross-disciplined approach to examining what for many people regardless of their generation remains a controversial symbol.

Zahn does in many ways succeed in re-contextualising a symbol of twentieth century power and violence. By explaining the history Zahn does show how those past positive associations can be overpowered by more recent associations. In some ways, it all comes down to how much we know about and understand the power we attribute to a symbol. I cannot see the outstretched arm becoming any more socially acceptable than giving someone a V sign or ‘the finger’ but this performance does for me at least succeed in repositioning the gesture in the context of a wider historical perspective.

Situation with Outstretched Arm is theatre with a message, but it’s not an easy watch. You find yourself challenging how your view is itself being challenged and changed and debating if that is acceptable. It is I suppose an indication of the hold that the salute has over people some eighty years after it was first used negatively.

For some people, I am sure that Situation with Outstretched Arm will be a bore, but if you allow yourself to absorb what is an important message you will start to look at all the different symbols that you use to define your life and how you interact with others. Some you will recognise as positive and others less so. Some you may even want to investigate further and discover how they became part of your life and how those associations were established.

After an interlude for a proper supper the final performance commences. Overload is delivered by Sotterraneo a multi award winning theatre collective from Florence, a city which if the tourist brochure pictures of domes and pan-tiled roofs are to be believed is a peaceful and serene sort of place. But beneath those tranquil rooftops is a vibrant city in which no day goes as planned when there is a constant stream of distractions and interruptions.

It is the nature of these distractions and interruptions that Overload, a work that is performed on the basis that it is still under development, seeks to explore.

The performance is suitably fast-paced and free-flowing with lots of audience interaction. At one point an Italian swimmer in rubber cap, goggles and budgie smugglers launched himself from the stage directly at me in my front row and centre seat. At another point an Italian senorita invited me to the stage for a slow dance. Fairly-conventional audience participation stuff really. What is not so normal, is allowing the audience to decide the pace of the show, which effectively removes control of the performance from the performers. If we had been of such a mind the performance could still have been going at breakfast.

Overload compares the supposed attention span of a goldfish, (no fish were harmed in the performance) with the supposedly reducing attention span of human beings. The performance asks us to wonder whether it is our attention span that is reducing or if instead it is the increasing number of distractions and our willingness to give in to those distractions that is creating the impression that we cannot concentrate. Excuse me I have just received an email…

I am back, sorry that took a while the telephone rang and someone came to the door, Etc etc. It’s easily done and hard not to give in.

Overload is comedic, at times bordering on farce but always fast paced in a way that reflects the overload of interruptions and distractions that have become part of living in a connected world. At times, it is also emotional as we discover that for each detraction to be able to start, something else must also come to an end, perhaps prematurely, even life itself.

One thing it is not is distracted. Throughout the performance, which is both polished and on point, it is hard to believe that this is a work that is still being developed. I ask myself whether such a commentary on modern life will ever be able to reach a point of completion, or if it will just continue to evolve as the way in which we live changes.

Overall Overload is great fun. Scratch beneath the surface though and you will be asking yourself if the number of distractions you allow yourself at home, at work and in every aspect of your life is justifiable or something that you need to have a serious word with yourself about.

Attend a mainstream theatre production and you arrive with the expectation that you are going to be entertained. Attend an experimental theatre production and you will be no less entertained, but you will also be challenged, as with these three productions to see the world and potentially yourself differently.