Watch the Birdie: Sylvia Rimat and PanicLab at Sacred

Time is waiting in the wings. Again. Deja Vu. Chelsea Theatre, Sacred Season 2015. A show about the nature, and perception, of time. Last week, Project O’s Voodoo; this week, the new show by Sylvia Rimat, This Moment Now.

We start with a riff on time, a beating of time. Sylvia is noticeably absent. We have instead a jazz-rock drummer, and someone who describes himself as the ‘stage manager’, although perhaps ‘performative technician’ might be closer. A number of metronomes are placed downstage, set off at different times, and the drummer (Chris Langton) launches into a flurry of paradiddles. The stage manager (Alasdair Jones) then twiddles with his laptop and brings up a live-feed image of Sylvia on the large screen upstage. She is outside, braving the wind and rain on the edge of the World’s End to tell us that time is different from where she is – nearer the ground, thus moving slower because of gravity. No, I don’t understand either. I gave up physics when I was 14. And I’ve no regrets: I’ve given up trying to understand everything. At age 60, I’ve realised that I just won’t, and that’s that – life’s too short.

And the brief burst of time that is our short lives is the heart of the matter: this is very much a show about ageing as time ticks by, measuring out our lives. When she finally makes a live appearance onstage, Sylvia describes herself as ‘neither young nor old’, placing herself (sometimes literally) between screen images of 93-year-old Eileen and 9-year-old Rose. Of course, to the old dears in the audience – like me and my companion – Sylvia is a spring chicken. But I suppose that is the point. It’s all relative, as Einstein might have said. Musing on both the aforementioned Einstein (much in the news at the moment due to it being the 100th anniversary of the publishing – or exposing or revealing or whatever you do with theories – of the general theory of relativity) and on quantum mechanics (which I’m told is different to quantum physics, but – well, if you know the difference, you’re a better woman than I), the artist reflects on how time is perceived by different people, and especially by people at different stages of their life. For little Rose, a minute passes very slowly. For elderly Eileen, the years fly by. Well, no surprises there. But what, Sylvia says, really matters is the here and now: ‘ I am here. I am here with you now. I am here with you now and believe that it matters.’

Sylvia Rimat is as gorgeous and endearing a stage presence as ever, but This Moment Now doesn’t have quite the appeal for me of last year’s Sacred offering, the inspirational If You Decide to StayPerhaps because it is new, and needs bedding in? But the material just doesn’t seem to be as compelling: what is really being said here that is beyond what we all know only too well about time? But is this my age speaking? Perhaps it is all a revelation to younger people. And the performance mode is less relaxed, with rather too many contemporary live art / new dance cliches for my taste (the gestural choreography, the shaking and twitching, the running back and forth to the mic). I also find the audience involvement in this show less engaging: the synchronising of timepieces feels token and meaningless (there is no real synchronised time, it is all a man-made nonsense); the pause for a tea break I suppose a nice little reference both to J Alfred Prufrock’s measuring out of life with coffee spoons, and to the endless waiting for the tea trolley in hospitals and nursing homes – but watching people queue for their tea is tedious. How to denote boredom without being boring, always a theatrical dilemma.

What I very much do like, though, is the filmed interviews with Eileen and Rosa, and later with two even younger females, Lola and Marlina, and the way they are used in the piece – really lovely work. This could perhaps be further extended to include women of all ages. And I appreciate the nod to If You Decide to Stay, in which Sylvia mused on whether she should bring a live cockerel on stage. She decided against it then, opting instead for donning a furry white rabbit suit. This year, we get the bird. An actual live cockerel who stands alone on stage and stares at us, then pecks at the grain scattered on the floor. The legacy of Pina Bausch lives on…

After a short break, we’re back in the theatre for more bird action, in PanicLab’s Swan Lake II: Dark Waters. The performance space is set with a large, deep circle of feathers, and a naked figure is lying curled up on the downy island. Above, a swan hangs. A discarded costume. A puppet. A slaughtered bird in a butcher’s shop. What evolves over the next hour is a really beautiful reflection on the tug between savagery and civilisation, as the themes and motifs of  Swan Lake are deconstructed and played out in this clever ‘ode’ to Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet.

Lone performer Jordan Lennie is Prince Siegfried, waking up alone in the lake, we presume having survived the double-suicide at the end of ballet. There are, in any case, numerous alternative endings to Swan Lake that have been danced over the years – why not have one more? He has apparently morphed into a swan – or at least, into a kind of half-man half-swan hybrid. Like a naif encountering the world with fresh, innocent and confused eyes, he explores the possibilities and limitations of his own beautiful body, stretching and preening, and then moves on to investigate the world he’s locked into on his island. Feathers are ruffled, and within them he finds eggs, devoured raw – but as his human half gains precedence, the eggs get fried and served on a plate, and his naked lower half is covered with semi-opaque dancer’s tights. Memory returns, and shocked and stunned he stands and screams: ‘ODETTE, ODETTE, ODETTE…’

At one moment, as our prince rises sur pointe to dance a pastiche of moves from the ballet, I recall having seen a cabaret version of this piece in Duckie’s Border Force. Which raises (as with Dickie Beau’s Blackouts) the interesting question about the role of cabaret in contemporary Live Art, and the use of the same material in different contexts.

Swan Lake II: Dark Waters is choreographed by Lennie and PanicLab co-founder (with producer Clara Giraud) Joseph Mercier, who directs the piece. It is a visually stunning work, merging a celebration of hedonistic pleasure with an exploration of what it means to be human (with all the pain that this brings). There are also many moments of humour played out alongside the beauty and the bathos. A very beautiful piece of work overflowing with powerful and haunting images.

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.