Performance at the Romanian Cultural Institute 5/5/09
Performers: Line Ellegaard, Adam James, Malin Stahl.
Violin: Frank Biddulph. Vocal: Keeley Forsyth
Curation / Production Assistance: Elea Himmelsbach / Helen Smith
A warm May evening and every damn tree and shrub in Belgrave Square simultaneously contrived to release their pollen bearing spores right up my hooter. I ingloriously sneezed my way through the salubrious environs of the Romanian Embassy to witness the, near analysis defying, performance of boyleANDshaw's new, Brancusi inspired, performance piece 'Maiastra, Please Sing!'
Brancusi, who he? I had a general sense of the man, the period and type of work. But if you're a little vague about it yourself here's the 'idiot's guide'. A Romanian sculptor (for the most part), a central figure of the Modernist movement and a pioneer of abstraction, matey with Duchamp, Matisse, Satie and Modigliani. Handsome cove, roué, renowned for his relationships with some of the most beautiful and powerful women of his generation, whom he then rendered into stunning, brink of abstract, sculptural form, the resemblance being 'just there', drawn simply from the curve of a face or the shape of a whole body.
Indeed, it's this hinterland to abstraction that boyleANDshaw boldly introduced into this evenings events.
Part of the R.C.I.'s opening for its 'Constantin Brancusi the photographer' exhibition, 'Maiastra, Please Sing!' followed on immediately and deftly from Sandra Miller's erudite and amusingly gossipy introductory talk. The talk, doubtless, was something expected by the large assembled audience of Romanian / modernist art devotees. Being then lead, pied piper like, by an improvising Romanian violinist into an adjoining room apparently conjured from the realms of magic realism was, probably, not.
As Aid Shaw's droll Northern toned voiceover cut across the violin ( which, during the entire course of the performance lived in an intriguing half world between gypsiesque folk and Schoenberg's 12 tone system ); 'Imagine being called Monday ... imagine being called Monday morning', three very strangely clad individuals slowly emerged ...
A sinister androgynous figure in dark suit and stove pipe hat vied for attention with an unquestionably female individual whose bare lower back was (rather erotically) painted with the 'f-shape' markings of Man Ray's famous Surrealist photograph ; 'Le Violin D'Ingres' , the third character being a grizzled ( and strangely crowned ) representation of Brancusi himself.
Beginning with this figure of Brancusi in an imaginary museum setting the narrative followed the three characters into a 'fairground' described through a montage of drawings, cut out props and Romanian folkloric imagery. The movements were slow and subtle, perhaps the most charming being the 'Ingres' figures graceful walkabout with her bare feet tangled in a loop of small electric bulbs. Invitingly delicate visuals and deliberately cast against the audio.
What became immediately apparent in this site specific work is that boyleANDshaw have moved resolutely away from the brash 'major key' feel of their previous, Royal Academy based, opus (Dynamite Fighter) into the respective 'minor'. Gone is the trash aesthetic junk-yard / boxing ring / cinema and Clockwork Orangesque costumes of D.F. and in come chaise lounges, rugs, wall tapestries, ancient telephones, chandeliers ; an atmosphere replete with antiquity providing an entirely different kinetic feel. 'Maiastra' is an elaborate, fictional piece of experimental theatre with a surreal dream like quality. A chamber piece wherein the overall sensation is that of stepping into a sepia tinted photograph.
Inverting 'Dynamite Fighter's' format wherein Shaw's voiceovers were suggestive of a narrative backbone to the piece, here his interpostulations became increasingly contrapunctual with excellent sections of weirded out rhythmic repetitions: “Look on top of the ROTHKO ... Look on TOP of the Rothko ... LOOK on top OF the Rothko”, strangely fusing the chiding, staccato 'poetics' of Brian Clough with hints of Mark E. Smith's hectoring, downbeat agitation.
One thing started to become clear; the weirdly cinematic quality of the piece works both for and against. The engendered atmosphere was captivating but some of the performance gestures, being subtle and small scale, could become lost unless you really kept alert. Changing the perspective, this looked like it really wants to be a film (in point of fact, on the night it was being filmed). The 20 minute duration, the slightly narcotic dream like quality, the nuances, all spoke to that purpose; acutely like being at the shoot of some early 20th century piece of Surrealism.
The piece drew gently and elastically to its close as the onstage trio simulated what was either a wordless death-bed or simple 'back to the dream' sequence, Shaw's voice now more cracked, melancholically repeating; 'Maiastra, please sing! Maiastra, please sing!' whilst the violin mocked and mimiced his phrasing in spooky high register. A beautifully sung verse of 'Ave Maria' called it to its end.
One criticism that could be made is that the piece lacked a natural 'centre' to lock onto; being highly dependent upon its general drift of motion and the audience's ability to square some of its disparate components. Then again that is part of the point, the essence. It has a least as much to do with its subject as Phillip Glass's opera 'Einstein On The Beach does with said wildly coiffured genius, which is to say ; as much or as little as you like. If you're the kind of person who needs narrative completely spelt out for you then you probably wouldn't care for it, but bring a dash of lateral imagination to it and it's entirely worth the trip!
Romanian Cultural Institute
1 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PH