Dorothy Max Prior goes to Inside Out Dorset, a biennial outdoor arts festival with an emphasis on work that both honours and engages with the landscape in which it is sited, urban or rural
A Friday evening in September on the waterfront at Poole Quay. A bright night, with a tiny sliver of new moon shining above the rig – the set and site for the Cirque Rouages show that is the big attraction on the opening evening of Inside Out Dorset 2018.
The audience are on all four sides of a big structure which has billowing white gauze sails attached to a ‘ship’ which is sporting two large rusty-looking metal wheels on either end, wires running between them. To one side are the musicians. Behind the veils, we see four figures turning and tumbling, their shadows thrown onto the fabric. I walk around the edge of the crowd. If I stand to the side of a wheel, facing out to the water, I see the performers under the ‘sails’ and I see the masts of the real ships and the dockland cranes framing them from behind. If I stand face-on then I see a beautiful shadow theatre of the four performing bodies. The fabric is drawn back, and the wonder of the rig is revealed – it is, in essence, two tightrope wires, one high and one even higher, attached to the two enormous wheels.
Over the 50 minutes we are treated to an eloquent exploration of the art of wire-walking by the four-person team of acrobats – although this show is so much more: these four walk, balance, dance, carry each other, and use the wire as a trapeze, creating breathtaking and beautiful images against the darkening night sky. All is augmented by the live sound, a lyrical melange of jazz and world music featuring live strings and vocals mixed with pre-recorded sound and a poetic spoken word text that gives voice to the memories of an older man – mariner, emigré – reflecting on key moments of his long life. When six years old, we learn, his aunt sang him a ballad about the magnificent sea life below the waves, from molluscs to jellyfish to clown fish. When thirty, his dreams of going to sea are a reality, and he finds himself alone in his boat, tossing upon the ocean waves. Now, he is ‘of a certain age’ and has more yesterdays than tomorrows…
There is a breathtaking scene in which two of the performers turn themselves into Catherine wheels within the structure, all four then taking turns to move along the wires whilst others pull: we are all cogs in the machine, reliant on each other, all life intertwined, the image seems to be saying. The concluding song, Sodade, is the one that gives the show its title – a cover of Cesaria Evora’s bittersweet emigrants’ song.
There are many things to praise in this show, from the top-notch wire-walking and acrobatics to the poetic text, live music, and of course the stunning set/rig, so aptly sited here on the quay – but what I love most of all is the way it manages to be both spectacular and intimate at the same time. It is impressively skilled, yet rather than selling itself on big-bang moments, the show is a continuous evolution of clever ideas and beautiful images, welded together into a gentle and lyrical narrative that appeals to all ages. The perfect show for the opening night of an outdoor arts festival.
The following day I head away from Poole towards the wonderfully named Pokesdown for Coastal Encounters, a series of installations and performances that are sited in Shelley Park or across the road in Boscombe Cliff Gardens, which merges into the Boscombe Overcliff Local Nature Reserve, offering a splendid view of Bournemouth bay.
I open my programme, and immediately decide that a high priority is to get a sniff of the wolves… Manimal: Gesticulating, a way of thinking about the World, by Les Souffleurs Commandos Poetiques, is described as a ‘poetic hit squad’ in which Les Souffleurs transform themselves into hybrid beings – half-human, half-animal, ‘improvising nests, and popping up in the landscape to set up furtive, silent meetings with human civilisation’. In this case, it will be a wolf and human encounter. But this isn’t a timetabled show. There is an installation, featuring a wolf head in a cage, and a series of ironically amusing photographs pinned to a line strung between trees bearing little flags saying ‘If you see a wolf, please call…’ with a telephone number given. Documenting the return of wolves to UK shores, the photos give us a narrative of the wolves as alien invaders, immigrants arriving by sea on rafts or popping up through sewer manholes, dressing in human clothes, and buying packs of shrink-wrapped mince at the supermarket. So the installation you can see any time you like – but the wolves themselves are on their own timetable. There’s no sign of them in the first couple of hours…
But never mind, there’s plenty of other things to see and do. Collectief Waldon’s Olie, for example, was commissioned by the Biblical Museum Amsterdam as part of a major project on the seven sins. The sin in this case is greed – specifically, greed around the mining and consumption of oil. Luckily, by dint of being whisked speedily up to the site by festival co-director Bill Gee almost as soon as I arrive at Boscombe, I witness the very beginning of the installation/performance, which is ongoing over the two days of this weekend mini-festival within the festival. The opening performance sees the setting up of the installation, a tall rectangular perspex box placed in an Italianate corner of the Boscombe Cliff Gardens, in which first oil, then ice, then soil are tipped into the box, forming layers, this ceremonial action completed by ‘workers’ in petrol-pump-attendant uniforms of bright blue and yellow, accompanied by a spoken lecture on the perils of our current oil-greedy policies, and a beautifully sung Bach cantata. (It is Ich habe genug or ‘I have enough’, I have been reliably informed!) Once the installation is set up, the mood switches from ceremonial to relaxed, and we are encouraged to talk to the artists. The group are all multi-talented, with interests that cross over from art to science to eco-politics: Collectief Waldon are possibly unique in the art/performance world, comprising an actor-scenographer, two philosophers, and a musician-biologist. We learn that throughout the weekend, the ice will melt, and the soil and oil will change places. No one quite knows how and when this will happen – there will be very many different phases, with almost imperceptibly slow movement shifting into sudden tipping points. The metaphor is obvious. A dangerously beautiful, clever and thought-provoking piece of work.
At the other end of the cliffs, another Dutch company, Waterlanders, present De Weide Wereld, an interactive installation ‘highlighting the plight of meadow birds whose existence is threatened by our intensive use of grassland’. Giant stylised wooden birds offer themselves to us, to put our heads inside theirs and see the grassy world from their perspective; a ladder and viewing tower allows the spectator a birds-eye view of the bay; and a wooden balustrade offers a stunning panorama of the sky, sea and golden sands below, with a surprising call of ‘Here, I’m here’ coming from the clifftop. Human interference in the landscape is represented by a low table bearing a white linen cloth, with glasses and cutlery strewn around. My visit to this installation is brief, but I enjoy what I see and hear – a charming piece that presents its environmental message in a gentle and non-provocative manner. Walk a mile in my shoes becomes flutter a minute or two with my wings.
Talking of fluttering: just a little way back along the path in the gardens is a glade, where we find Fl-utter-ances (Tree Songs), a collaboration between environmental artist Jane Pitt and artist/musician Lorna Rees; a ‘sonic meditation’ and performance work created from woodland field recordings – the sounds of the trees, the leaves and the wind – together with the human elements of recorded choral voice, poetic text using wordplay and local dialect, and live and recorded song in a charming invented language that references Dorset poet William Barnes. The glade is hung with large round fish-eye mirrors, each with its own soundtrack of whispers, rustles or sung chords. Nearby, there are a number of sun loungers bearing ‘sound-pillows’ which each give us one of three recorded sound pieces. I return to these many times throughout the afternoon – but first I catch one of a number of live, acoustic performances that augment the installation. A cellist (Laura Reid) sits in the glade by a hanging mirror. The seductive sound of her instrument, combined with that of the installations, lures us into the glade to explore the interesting sound relationships that occur as you move around from one mirror to another, sounds ebbing and flowing – and then another layer is added in the form of Lorna Rees’s voice, heard first in the distance as she walks slowly through the woods and grassland, then louder as she finally appears in the glade, looking resplendent in a dress made from material printed with images from Jane’s artwork of the ancient Black Poplar tree which inspired the ‘Harkee’ song she is singing. Fl-utter-ances is many things simultaneously: a time-based performance work, a sound installation, and an ongoing environmental art project. Such a nurturing work of art – truly food for the soul.
Fl-utter-ances is one of the four works by UK based artists commissioned by Inside Out Dorset. The others seen here today are by emerging Dorset-based performance artist and poet Dave Young, aka The Shouting Mute, who gives us Prose in the Park, a promenade through Shelley Park featuring sound installation and written texts, co-created with members of the public who use the park; Giorgia Garancini’s Museum of Trees, a co-commission with Arts University Bournemouth that provides us with hammocks and frames that encourage us to look at trees from a new perspective; and Devon-based landscape dance company Stacked Wonky, a co-commission with Pavilion Dance South West called Those Who Are Not Here Are Here.
There are more than 60 benches in the park and along the cliff walk, many bearing dedications (as benches do) to departed souls with a connection to the place in which the bench is placed. There is, for example, one for Bert Caffin, who lived until the ripe old age of 89, and is now ‘in God’s garden’; one for Marguerite and Allen West, which comes with the exhortation to ‘enjoy the views they loved so much’; and one for John PE Wadsley, adorned with the message ‘it’s a wonderful life’. The reason I’m particularly noticing the benches is because they are the site for Those Who Are Not Here Are Here, a multi-faceted choreographic work by Stacked Wonky’s Sarah Shorten, in which a number of artists/performers animate the benches, or the space around them. As is oft the case with this sort of work, there is the added pleasure of working out if those kissing teenagers are part of the artwork, or if that tattooed man enjoying a sandwich on the bench is one of the artists or an unsuspecting member of the public. At various points in the afternoon, I come across a man in a sombre funeral suit and black tie (Jack Sergison) dancing exuberantly around the ‘wonderful life’ bench; a woman (Lyn Lydiard) stacking, shifting and re-arranging an eclectic pile of suitcases and boxes, in seemingly continuous transit; a violinist (Sebastian Tesouro) who sometimes plays and sometimes sits and stares out to sea, no doubt enjoying the view loved by Marguerite and Allen; and, most thrillingly, a man (Duncan Hume) and his two spaniels (Charlie and Lola) who occupy a shelter, the man exploring the choreographic possibilities of the space whilst the dogs look on, or rearrange themselves around him, creating a glorious trio of human and animal configurations, an ever-morphing living sculpture.
A little off the beaten track is a woodland path, and it is here that a woman can be found strolling with her baby in a vintage Silver Cross pram (Jane Leaney and baby Ada), both looking rather wonderfully out of time – the woman wears an old-fashioned cream dress, and the baby is in the sort of knitted bonnet, cardigan and tights that were popular a generation ago. As an accompanying man plays a gentle and rather melancholic tune on a harmonica, the woman stops, walks away from the pram, walks back, pushes and lets go of the pram, catches up with it, and takes the baby out for a cuddle, thus enacting a soft and gentle choreographic duet that seems to explore the overwhelming love and sweet bondage of motherhood, and invites us to wonder who inspired the story. As they move off down the path, the cream dress and chrome fittings of the pram picking them out from the foliage all around, it is as if we have been visited by friendly ghosts now departing. This is also part of Those Who Are Not Here Are Here, but I never get to see which bench it relates to, or find out whose story inspired the vignette… But oh what a beautiful site-responsive project this is! And I’m delighted Sarah Shorten ignored the conventional wisdom and chose to work with both children and animals.
So performances by dogs and a baby discovered and enjoyed, but what of the Manimals? Well, I am lucky enough to witness two different wolf sightings. In the first one, they are highly visible, five or six of them, close to the installation, grouped around and on a beautiful old tree. Their wolf-heads turn slowly to face us, and they stare boldly back at us, watching us watching them. If a child runs around them, they slowly turn their heads to follow her with their eyes. If anyone speaks, there is no answer, just an even longer, harder stare. After a while, something else happens – slowly, carefully the wolf heads are removed. But each human underneath maintains exactly the same stance and energy as their wolf-self, whilst holding the head under their arm, a completely unnerving effect. After what feels like a long time, each places their wolf-head in a black bag. Nothing of the wolves remains in sight: this is just a group of people carrying black bags, but their wolf energy remains. And still we are stared at as we watch them, people and wolf-people in two separate packs, both circled by the braver of the small children in the crowd. Slowly, very slowly, they leave the tree and walk backwards away from us. Their performance presence, ability to hold a space, and complicity is extraordinary. It is impossible to avert your eyes. Towards the end of the afternoon, I spot them again. This time they are in a more deeply wooded part of the park, just about visible through the trees. They are crouched on the ground, apparently oblivious to our gaze. Again, the wolf-heads are removed, and eventually placed in bags, and again it is astonishing to see how convincingly they retain their wolf selves in human clothing. A poetic hit squad indeed – beautiful work from Les Souffleurs Commandos Poetiques.
Such a wide and varied programme of work seen, so very many different artforms and approaches to making work witnessed at Inside Out Dorset 2018 – but if there is one characteristic that unites this diverse programme, it is that it all could be described as slow art. It is not loud or bombastic; the work seduces us gently, rather than shouting at us. The artists take their time, the work unfolds slowly, or sits quietly waiting to be discovered, and the audience lets go of the demands of time and allows itself to stare, to ponder, to potter, or to sit and listen. An outdoor circus show reflecting on the passing of time, and a life well lived in tandem with the sea, seen by the sea; a series of encounters around benches on a cliff path honouring lives passed; a slowly dissolving block of ice sandwiched between oil and soil; birdsong merging with human voice and the rustle of leaves; animated woodlands and walkways; and an exploration of the space where human meets animal… Here is truly environmental art – not so much art about the environment (although that too) as art that engages with the environment in which it is placed. A real joy.
Featured image (top) is Les Souffleurs Commandos Poetiques: Manimal: Gesticulating, a way of thinking about the World. Photo by Elliott Franks.
Inside Out Dorset 2018 ran Friday 14 to Saturday 22 September. Dorothy Max Prior attended for Total Theatre Magazine on Friday 14 and Saturday 15 September 2018. For full information on all shows and events, see www.insideoutdorset.co.uk
Inside Out Dorset is presented by Activate, the strategic organisation in Dorset focused on producing large-scale outdoor performing arts and creating an infrastructure to support the wider dance and theatre sector. www.activateperformingarts.org.uk