Guest Blogger Karen Griffiths had first dibs at Overworlds and Underworlds in Leeds this weekend, and even managed to come face to face with her heroes. Gasp.
Having long been a fan of the strange worlds of the Quay brothers’ stop motion animation films it was with a great deal of excitement (but also a bit of puzzlement) that I heard they had been asked to mastermind Leeds’ Cultural Olympiad project in 2012. I was at a loss to understand how their tiny, nightmareish worlds of dancing iron filings and eyeless china dolls could be translated into a city-scale performance. The build up to the event has been excruciating with tiny drips of information appearing through social media channels, film clips of young choristers being rehearsed but only the faintest of music being heard, photos of shipwrecks bursting out of pavements and enigmatic references to floods. For someone who likes to plan out their trips to town in some detail I truly felt all at sea.
Thus it was with some trepidation that I made my way to Leeds on Friday evening. I knew that the Dark Arches under Leeds Station with its underground river and brick lined tunnels had been one of the major inspirations for the Quay brothers at the outset of the project and it was here I headed first, plunging headlong into the Underworld as it turned out. The first impression is pretty overwhelming with a cacophony of sound bursting from the darkness that envelopes you. But gradually your eyes get attuned to the projected lights and you can then begin to tentatively feel your way around. Each alcove has a new wonder to explore and I don’t want to spoil the excitement of discovery for weekend visitors by describing every last detail so here are just a few of my personal highlights:
The dancers covered in luminous warpaint like pixilated sprites in a ghostly computer programme, later on returning in white flowing costumes dancing with fleshless floating corpses-like partners – the first of many ghostly apparitions.
The dark angels who seem to have stepped out of the film ‘Constantine’ with their black wings and gothic costumes, carrying suitcases as if they had been evicted from whatever dark corner they normally dwelt in.
The mummified objects in glass cases, one like a hand but with dried up insects heads for fingernails, another a dried, curled up hosta leaf with the empty body of a spiky caterpillar frozen on it.
The silent film of a floating silvery moon over a restless sea.
The coffin shaped light box with its unsettling miniature post apocalyptic landscapes of towering rocks and sinking pylons
Women in evening dresses apparently drowning to the sound of bells.
And throughout there was the sound, recorded and real, of water, rushing, foaming, bubbling and dripping. The river Styx come to life. This really was the centre piece of the whole event with wonderful projections and spotlights revealing distant views of the underground river and close-up details of the arches no-one will have seen before. Make sure you penetrate right to the very heart of the arches because here you will see the climax which is a truly wonderful projection enhanced by specially commissioned music that really clutches at the heart. Before you lies a giant coloured Versailles or the underground water cisterns in a Moorish city or the catacombs under Rome. Marvelous. Eerie. Breathtaking.
I then staggered back out into the light past an apparently murderous game of musical chairs and a puppet water sprite and hurried through the rain (was that specially commissioned too?) up to Briggate and the glass-roofed Victorian splendour of the County Arcade.
The contrast of this light, airy, colourful space – the Overworld – could not have been stronger. Having turned up on time I was treated to a performance by the children of the Opera North chorus who filed in over our heads in the galleried upper storey, dressed up in back cloaks with silver buttons like so many Spanish orphans. They completed the picture with a wonderful opening piece involving syncopated clapping which echoed around the glass ceilings brilliantly. They sang beautifully some very difficult music including some definite Carl Orff which suited the joyful strangeness of the whole evening. And lo and behold, as I left who should I see standing unrecognised among the appreciative audience but the Quay brothers themselves. I gushed like a schoolgirl, they smiled graciously, I ran away.
And after all that glass-covered ethereality, what should I bump into back on Briggate, but a brass band at full blast – brilliant. Away they marched under an arch, followed by a group of happy fans as if the Pied Piper of Hamlyn had come to life. I wandered on down Briggate only to be startled by the sound and then the apparent rematerialization of the same band on the opposite side of the street. A moment of blank confusion and then the first band hove into a view and the two bands had a brilliant confrontation in the middle of Briggate. A disorientating but ultimately fun-filled end to a superbly entertaining evening.
I can guarantee that there will be all this and so much more for the rest of the weekend – check out the www.overworldsandunderworlds.com website for more information including performance times in the County Arcade, but don’t expect there to be too much guidance, it’s up to you to open your minds and hearts to whatever comes your way over what will be a truly magical weekend in Leeds.