Dávid Somló: Mandala | Dog Kennel Hill Project: Our True Feelings

Now 16 is a five-week programme of weekly double bills. Interrogative, multidisciplinary works that combine a physical movement or dance vocabulary with speech link the themes of week three of Now 16 Festival with the festival’s opening shows.

Dávid Somló’s Mandala, veils week three’s double bill with a sense of mystery and uncertainty as the audience is divided upon arrival at The Yard. Ten selected members are given a set of brief instructions and a diagram of a floor pattern, (matching one chalked on stage), and all are left wondering how Mandala will be encountered. The simple map consists of a series of overlapping shapes; circles, triangles, rectangles and lines. The tentative selected few take up position in the floor space, each holding a round speaker collected from their starting point. A mixture of men and women, strangers and friends embark on long, slow journey together as they begin to walk along their pathway. Nervous eyes either dart about or remain steadfastly focused on the floor. Once everyone has settled down into repeatedly walking the perimeter of their assigned shape, the constant meandering of bodies in space with sporadic subtle surprises becomes meditative and pleasant. Interesting moments are when bodies overlap or block pathways. This forces the anonymous audience members cum performers to become human. Some jump over the join, others reverse, some giggle and others say thank you. These are tiny pockets of personality that emerge often but irregularly. Responses to navigating these barriers begin to reveal social etiquette and a tension between breaking social rules and the rules of the piece begins to emerge. Each person carries their own speaker, some hold it in front like a precious offering, rest it on a shoulder, or swing it, seemingly nonchalant. The minimal soundscape is soothing and gradually rises and falls in volume. There is an expectation of a play of sound in the space, with particular noises and scores becoming prominent and disappearing as their carriers travel past. There is no ebb and flow, no sense of immersion or surround-sound experience, and the relationship between the soundscape, the figures in space and the audience is not made clear throughout. This work feels like an exercise, a creative task that is rich in content to analyse and develop. For those who take part, the experience is certainly immersive and unusual for those who are not from a performative background; however the potential to alter and develop the work outweighs the experiential work as it stands.

Dog Kennel Hill Project tackle what they describe as the ‘dirty subject of emotion’ in what appears at first glance to be a dry non-emotive and starkly scientific response to the theme. Our True Feelings cleverly sets up this tone in order to break it with a sophisticated awareness and hilarious wit. It pokes fun at the science and at the society that creates the stigma surrounding emotion by exposing its stilted language. Our True Feelings is the final work of a trilogy called Etudes in Tension and Crisis and uses cognitive psychology as a language through which to explore states of emotion. The piece takes the form of a lecture by Henrietta Hale, with Erik Nevin and Helka Kaski placed on white plinths following her command with small movement phrases or etudes. Like the use of etudes in music, these scores are didactic; short phrases that require technical skill and work as an illustration of Hale’s text. Six emotions are categorised: happiness, sadness, distrust, anger, fear and surprise. They are broken down into five levels of intensity and divided between facial and bodily movements. Nevin and Kaski robotically droop their mouths, scrunch their brows, clench their fists and openly gesticulate as each level acquires accumulative movements. They are grotesque creatures that switch abruptly from trembling with fear to standing neutrally with not a trouble in the world. The process dehumanises them as they lose autonomy and a disconnect is discovered between facial and bodily expression.

Separating the physical manifestation and felt state of emotion forms the core of the inquiry and creates a contemporary parallel to Russian practitioner Vsevolod Meyerhold, who called for the use of physical etudes to provoke the corresponding emotional feeling within the actor. Like Meyerhold, Dog Kennel Hill Project form their own series of movements assigned to emotions but set about deconstructing their own vocabulary. They do this by tackling complex composite emotions and their interpretations reveal opposite emotions in face and body mistakenly read as their matching counterpart. This feeds the quest for something authentic rather than constructed and questions the science used to explain this throughout. Our concept of what is felt and what is communicated is further distorted as Nevin and Kaski begin to live out their own emotions, abandoning their plinths and performing a duet that expands the constrictive vocabulary demonstrated at the beginning into an awkward dance of social interactions and physical responses.

Hale surprises the audience by rolling about the floor or dropping her pants for seemingly no reason as she continues her straight-faced formal lecture. Between bursting into laughter, the audience is prompted to contemplate the tensions and barriers that both confuse and enable emotions to be felt and communicated. This is a work in subversion that is effective in unsettling its audience, making them laugh and posing quizzical notions that get everyone involved. Not sure whether the search for a fully comprehensive understanding of true feelings will ever be achieved, this comprehensive survey exposes the intangible, what it is to feel, with an enquiring and comical awareness.

Featured image (top): Dávid Somló’s Mandala

Now 16 at The Yard ran 12 May to 11 June 2016

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About Rebecca JS Nice

Rebecca worked as a dance teacher, lecturer and choreographer for eight years specialising in tap and jazz. She has a background in Art History and is currently training further in medieval history and contemporary choreography with a particular interest in live art. At the early stage of her dance writing career, Rebecca reviews and analyses theatre and dance performance and is working on a papers for publication.