Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Moving Landscapes

Heike Roms looks at recent developments in Welsh dance theatre

The mountain range appears, white and gleaming, against the fading night as dusk sets in. A thunderous rumble in the far distance warns of a storm approaching. The glowing red ball of the sun vanishes slowly behind the peaks, bathing them for a moment in its orangebeam. We are witnesses to a lorious sunset in the uplands of Pen Llyn - only we are sitting, neatly packed in rows, inside the black-box auditorium of Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. The mountains are formed from crumpled strips of paper, on which moments ago performer Simon Whitehead had scribbled memories of a walk across the peninsula. Now he is standing next to the paper panorama, moving a red light bulb slowly from one side to the other, whilst his collaborator - sound artist Barnaby Oliver, mixes the sounds of nature with those of technology.

The presentation of Whitehead's ';folc-land' was part of the "Welsh Contemporary Dance Platform", a showcase of dance and physicaltheatre which was staged by Chapter in early October for an audience of international theatre programmers and festival organisers. The event also served to launch Wales Arts International, a new initiative with the aim of promoting Welsh arts abroad and for which the ArtsCouncil of Wales and the British Council in Wales have joined forces. Yet beyond being mere market-places for trading theatrical products,showcases of this kind always offer valuable insights into the range and quality of the art on display. And the Welsh selection managedto impress the international guests with its vibrancy, integrity and professionalism. It also manifested a shift within Welsh-based experimental theatre which has been coming for some time. Whilst the more established ensembles like Diversions, Earthfall or Volcano Theatre continue to convince with mature and assured performances, it was a young generation of theatre makers, often working outside themainstream with little or no public funding, who created the most original and en g aging theatrical pieces of the platform. Artists suchas Simon Whitehead, Sioned Huws, Marc Rees, Sean Tuan John and Eddie Ladd have made an aesthetic virtue out of necessity, preferring rough, off-the-cuff performance sketches to polished theatrical products, and the unpredictable but dynamic nature of artistic collaboration to the stability of continuous ensemble work. Their work is truly "interdisciplinary", transgressing the genre boundaries between dance and theatre by using movement, text, video, film, live music and design elements with equal skill. Their individual styles are too diverse to proclaim the formation of a new artistic movement. But the artists in question have at least one striking feature in common: their joint preoccupation with place, environment and landscape. They share an interest in the complex relationship between ourselves, our bodies and our environment in our physical and sensual experience and memory of a place, and in the impact a particular location can have on our lives. Theirs is a theatre which acknowledges the close link between culture, subjectivity and place without reverting to nostalgia, new age mysticism or an aggressive "native soil" ideology. This theatre fully deserves to be called "site-specific": it has achieved a great sophistication in its attention to the architectural details of the building in which it is staged, whether it be a conventional theatre or, more often, a non-theatrical space.

But the work of these Welsh-based theatre makers is equally specific about the places it refers to. In his programme notes, Whitehead gives us the exact location of the locality on which his performance is based - Pathfinder 801 (sh 34/44) Llanaelhaearn, OS ref: 408476- 427478. This specificity is important for the understanding of the choreography: it is only in relation to this particular landscape that the work makes sense. This evocation of a specific locale, however, need not be confined to rural environments. The urban scenery of Cardiff's docklands is the point of reference in Marc Rees's piece Fist 1st. The production is based on the strange, but true story of an encounter between writer Kingsley Amis and artist Francis Bacon in a bar in Cardiff docks. The diversity of material that Rees employs, from Bacon's paintings to extracts from a film by Jean Genet again coheres less in relation to the story told than to its locality, the urban underworld of sailors, prisoners and the homosexual erotic. And again, a particular site is evoked by the simplest of means: Rees blows across the neck of an empty water bottle and we find ourselves in the middle of Cardiff's seafaring world.

The relationship between two localities, the question of "how a feeling of one place is brought into another, the outside to the inside, a landscape to a cityscape" is the starting point for Sioned Huws's intriguing work Cor Meibion. The production was first conceived for the concrete jungle of the South Bank Centre in London, and restaged here for the showcase in the grand vestibule of the National Museum in Cardiff. With a sure instinct for environment, Huws choreographs her large ensemble, which consists of fifty members of the Penrhyn Male Voice Choir, ten small boys, four female dancers, a male clog dancer and a harpist, in ever-new spatial configurations in front of, behind, amongst and above the audience. For her, the human body is not only part of a landscape, but a carrier for it: "I see the hall as a forest, the choir as a mountain, the boys as young rivers, the dancers as the earth and the clogs represent work. The choir contains he landscape in their singing, the boys in their spirit, the dancers in their movement and the clogs in their rhythm," the choreographer states in a booklet accompanying the project. By thus relating the environment to the individual performen Huws manages to reduce the over-sized entrance hall of the museum to human scale.

In their treatment of the stage environment, all these productions are personal and intimate in scale. And although they may employ a wide range of different media, film, video or electronic music, they are far from being high-tech exercises. The technology always remains an instrument which is operated and manipulated by the performer, whether Whitehead moves his own lighting around the stage or performer Eddie Ladd projects a video of herself on her own shaven head. Ladd's ingenious use of projections in a small artist's studio at Chapter is further proof of the intelligence with which these artists utilise the space in which they perform. Her performance Lla'eth features a highly eclectic mix of narratives of her own upbringing in west Wales, the milk and beef industry of the area, and the space exploration programme of the 1960s, which again find their point of reference in a specific locality.

These Welsh-based performers are shaping a unique form of theatre: a performance of place, a dance of ecology, a theatre of landscape. This theatre obtains its originality from a commitment to the particular rural and urban environment of Wales. One production at the showcase, however, left this country behind and ventured forth into an unknown territory at the outer limits of our world: in Dead Men's Shoes, performer Mike Pearson and scenographer Mike Brookes took us to the icy wastes of the Antarctic, the total inversion of landscape. With the help of original written and photographic documentation, Pearson and Brookes recreated the tragic story of Edgar Evans, the Welshman who accompanied Scott in his fatal 1912 expedition. At the end of a journey which took us from Cardiff to the South Pole, we were left with one final image: that of utter and complete whiteness. Here, nothing remains which could render this tragic story of failure and loss meaningful. What is left is a landscape where nature relentlessly erases the traces of our interference.

author:Heike Roms

original source: Planet #126 December 1997/January 1998
01 December 1997


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