Art experimental performance

Forced Entertainment have been making experimental performance work since 1984. But behind the forbidding impression this opening sentence creates, there’s plenty of joy, messiness and imagination that’s ready to be injected into the new territory of making work for children.

As Tim Etchells explains, “the impulse to make something for kids has been there for a long time, since different people in the company have had kids. Once the kids started to arrive you see the influence of that on the work; props or songs or story structures or images that belong in children’s stories kept creeping in.” Now, they’re letting these influences in through the front door, by collaborating with Vlatka Horvat to explore the idea of a house where “things would happen in different ways or strange things that would happen.” I wondered if it was influenced by 1927’s The Animals And Children Took To The Streets, and Etchell’s cites “a big endless list of children’s books that use the device of a familiar environment that has somehow been transformed or is transforming. There was an inkling we’d access that sort of magical territory through Vlatka Horvat’s work.” Known for her installations, here she makes surreal, melancholy collages which spring from the pages of a girl’s algebra book.

Where 1927’s impossible apartment block populated a vast stage, this piece “uses projection, but not in a spectacular full screen way. We’re making quite small projections on bits of cardboard that performers are holding, with objects that you observe or strange characters you meet. You might look over at the corner of the room and there on the cardboard appears a drawing of a mouse, or a soldier.” Etchells is intrigued by  the way that “those homemade, rather chaotic things produce something magical and you’re transported to a different place. It’s this doubleness of theatre’s ordinariness and everyday qualities, and its extraordinary capacity to summon other worlds, narratives and stories .”

Improv storytelling

m writing this on the way back from presenting Forced Entertainment’s improvised marathon story performance And On the Thousandth Night … at Hebbel am Uffer in Berlin. Since the show only ended at 1am, with all of us pretty much brain-fried after six hours spent telling stories on stage, bedtime was an almost inevitable 4.30am.

It’s a strange performance – hard to prepare for and often hard to remember. Preparations are almost completely pointless. And On the Thousandth Night … (or The Kings, as we’ve come to call it) is a free-for-all, governed by a simple set of rules; other than “having a think about stories you might try to tell”, any work in advance is pretty sure to bite the dust as eight performers, all wearing makeshift king costumes, jostle for space. The main rule (and arguably the only important one) is that no story is ever allowed to finish, since any performer who is speaking may be interrupted at any moment by another player, who’ll use the word “stop” to halt the narrative and claim the stage for their own story. It makes for what you might call a cut-throat playfulness.

Performing is always a three-way balancing act between the ideas you can think of at any given moment, the lurching mood or dynamics of the performance itself, and your own shifting state of tongue-tiedness or exhaustion-inspired lucidity. You may plan to embark on a slow-burning horror story, but at that particular moment your colleagues’ mood could be for short, comic tales involving depressed kings or sex-crazed plumbers. In this context, your tale can be stopped the moment you start. At other times, you’ll find yourself venturing a whimsical one-liner about a talking dog, or a love letter that gets lost in the post, only to find that here, where you least want it, your colleagues allow you to take the stage and don’t interrupt you for a long time. Sometime after midnight you’ll almost certainly be treading the shallow water of a story that lacks purpose or direction, begging silently for the “stop” to end your misery. More often than not, no such luck; there’s more amusement in letting you hang.

Perspiration and inspiration

When the long section of chaotic dances ends, there’s a lot of strain, stress and perspiration in the rehearsal studio. So much of the latter, in fact, that in some places it’s soaking through shirts and suit jackets, dripping down from the nasty nylon joke shop wigs that everyone is wearing for our new show. We’re calling it The Thrill of It All, and it starts its UK tour this week with gigs in Lancaster and Sheffield. “Wouldn’t it be nice …” says actor Cathy Naden moments later in the show, “if men’s sweat didn’t taste like old socks but tasted instead like Champagne.” She’s got a point.

Ever since we played a Frank Sinatra song to end one of Forced Entertainment’s earliest performances – Let the Water Run its Course to the Sea that Made the Promise back in 1986 – the broken dance has been considered something of a speciality of the house. True, the performers in that particular piece did little more than stand holding wet clothes while the lights faded, but I think everyone knew it was a kind of dance finale. Since then there have been many rather more elaborate, clumsy, exuberant and otherwise broken dances – from 1994’s Showtime, which saw Robin Arthur gyrating with only a balloon to cover his shame, hotly pursued by Cathy who snapped round his heels dressed as a dog, to Wendy Houstoun’s clipped and violent cavewoman dance around Jerry Killick, in the penultimate scene of The World in Pictures (2006).

Talking to the distinctly red-in-the-face performers in Thrill, breathing heavily at the end of the run-through, it’s not clear to any of us quite how we ended up making a piece so entirely and joyfully knackering as this one, especially given the age of most of the company members. No doubt that choreographer and performance-maker Kate McIntosh, who joined us in the making process, was more than instrumental, but the bar of the dancing – cruise-ship chorus line meets Italian TV spectacular by way of Morecambe and Wise, all set to Japanese lounge music – was already set awkward and high.

In our work, the dancing body often appears ridiculous. It’s rarely triumphant, soaring, elegant, acrobatic or overly pleased with itself. And the dance, such as it is, is often an invitation for disaster. Dance leads to fight. Or dance is already a fight. Or dance is only there as a foil through which to chase the other guy and somehow trip him. We’re drawn to the spectacle of things falling apart. Dances, jokes, performers and breathing rhythms all seem so much more interesting when they’re under duress – when the pattern (or patter) you know should be there gets compromised and messed up. As my friend, Chicago-based performance-maker and writer Matthew Goulish always says: “If you want to study a system, first look at how it fails.” That’s as true for bridge design or economics as it is for performance.

Despite being a good excuse for a gag, dance, however ludicrous, is also always in some strange way a space of potential for us – a bend in the fabric of reality, a place where we can hit something, whether it’s elation, mystery or energy. A place that’s a little outside the everyday, a little on the side of magic. Wendy’s dance from The World in Pictures or Tom Conway’s dance in the new performance The Thrill of It All both have this kind of quality. Ungainly and desperate for sure, funny perhaps, but much more than just joking around.

Founder and artistic director

Tim Etchells is the co-founder and artistic director of Forced Entertainment, a British ensemble known for durational performances lasting from six to twenty-four hours. Yet in his article on Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh, Etchells is self-effacing: “six hours might seem quite silly when compared to Tehching’s yearlong pieces (laughable almost) but nonetheless, there’s something about duration, its energy and its inherent undertow of decay, that has always agitated and vitalised the space of performance for me.”

Tehching Hsieh became legendary for a series of yearlong performances created in the 1970s and ‘80s, during which he lived according to self-imposed “contracts” that placed him under rigorous constraints. From 1978-1979, Hsieh lived in solitary confinement. From 1980-1981, he punched a time clock every hour upon the hour.


From 1981 to 1982, Hsieh lived outside, not setting foot inside a “building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave, or tent.” From 1983-1984, he lived attached by an eight-foot rope to artist Linda Montano—their proximity made more severe by the stipulation that they not touch. From 1985-1986, Hsieh lived without art. And then for thirteen years, Hsieh disappeared himself from the art world.

It makes sense that Etchells should feel an affinity for Hsieh’s work. Like Hsieh’s performances, Forced Entertainment’s “durationals” are improvised within sets of rules and constraints. Quizoola! involves performers continually asking and answering questions, competing among themselves for the audience’s laughter and attention; in Speak Bitterness, they perpetually confess. The durationals are, in Etchell’s words, “rule structures inside which the performers are free to operate, making real decisions about what they do next in reaction to what the others are doing, what the audience is doing, and what they feel like.”

Duration represents, for each, a way of making the work more felt. Hsieh has said that he tried to “make art stronger than life so people [could] feel it.” Indeed, his works stand as lived metaphors for varieties of imprisonment often unseen: incarceration, labor, homelessness, marriage, a life without art, a life lived invisibly. Through duration, the extraordinary constraints Hsieh imposes upon himself transcend the merely metaphorical. Art, endured for so long, is revealed as Life, and its “real” consequences must be recognized.

Learning the lines

Vlatka Horvat and I take seats on opposite sides of a table in a gallery at Aichi Arts Centre in Nagoya, Japan, for part of our Over the Table project. Trapped between our hands is a pen, tracing lines on the paper we’ve placed on the table, marking the restless skids and scratches of our ungainly Ouija-board-meets-broken-seismograph collaboration. Disengagement would cause the pen to fall immediately, but for the next hour its motion – fluid, clumsy, jerky, strained or otherwise – will be produced by our playful but silent negotiation. Looking down on the paper when the performance is over it’s all marks and trails, dots and lines – at once a drawing and a record of the choreography our hands have made, depicting their journey over the white expanse of the page.

There’s a strange fascination to this process and it led me to consider the link between performance and drawing. Bobby Baker’s Drawing on a Mother’s Experience comes to mind – a performance that revisited Jackson Pollock’s action painting from a feminist perspective, switching his dripping and splattering of paint on canvas for the act of throwing domestic materials including flour, jam and even Guinness onto a white double bedsheet. The resulting picture is beautiful, messy. It’s also a theatrical mnemonic for the stories Baker has told in the performance: to look at it is to remember.

After Vlatka and I have finished our drawing performance we visit the upstairs gallery where Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has a huge work on canvas depicting a sketchy underwater landscape and figures, stretched around the walls. A video in the gallery makes clear how the work was created, starting with a woman swimming underwater in a clear-wall pool while the artist draws lines around her silhouette, a fleeting trace of her movement drawn on a paper draped around the pool. This process makes an amazing performance, even if not explicitly staged. The final part of the video shows Cai and numerous assistants making elaborate preparations on the surface of the drawing as it lies on the floor of a large sports hall.

European tour in ultramodern concert hall

It was as if a gigantic flock of birds, perhaps more than 300,000 of them, was hovering over the defiantly modern concert hall swaddling the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, wishing the orchestra Godspeed as it storms the Continent once again.

That conjectural avian blessing on the orchestra and Riccardo Muti as they launched their sixth joint European tour here on Friday night, came courtesy of the bold architectural vision that informs the Philharmonie de Paris, where the soldout concert (top price: $148) took place. It must have worked, because this first of 11 concerts the music director and the CSO are performing in France, Germany, Austria, Italy and Denmark, between now and the end of the month, proved to be an exhilarating success, with the public and most of the players, even the finicky maestro.

During a rehearsal break the previous day, Muti had pronounced the reverberant acoustics of the innovative 2,400-seat auditorium “strangely artificial.” He was singing a different tune following his and the CSO’s debut at the Philharmonie. While lacking the “natural warmth” of Vienna’s famed Musikverein, he said, the sound was “excellent, a great improvement over the acoustics at the rehearsal with no audience present.”

“I thought the orchestra played great as well,” he added. “They adjusted very quickly to the unfamiliar acoustic. I was very pleased.”

With that, Muti, looking tanned and rested after a recent vacation with his wife, Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, in Mauritius (an island in the Indian Ocean), went back to greeting audience members and autograph-seekers as they crowded around the open door to his basement dressing room.

“This hall is very easy to play in — the sound just wraps around you,” said Li-Kuo Chang, CSO assistant principal viola, clearly savoring his solo in Elgar’s “In the South (Alassio).” “There are no ‘edges’ like we have with the dryer sound of Orchestra Hall back home.”