Beyond The Black Box
Since the middle of the nineties, it seems as though the conventional performance and art spaces have had to compete with alternative sites outside the theatre and the museum. For some artists, the empty space of the white box gallery or the black box of the theatre have in fact become too empty: sterile in their potential to infuse art with life and create real exchanges with an audience. The reasons for the emergence of site-specific art and performance in Britain are complex. To some extent, its rise seems connected with the break-down of the boundaries between different art genres and their conventional forms of representation. Its manifestations are diverse, and definitions of this phenomenon vary accordingly. In contemporary dance circles, one name in particular has become synonymous with the notion of site-specificity and that is the company seven sisters group.
seven sisters group was founded by Susanne Thomas in 1994. I spoke with her about the nature of her choreographic work and its context in the field of site-specific performance at a location which inspired her latest research, The Library Project: The Reading Room at The British Museum. Born in Germany, Susanne Thomas arrived in the UK in 1991 to study contemporary dance and choreography at London Contemporary Dance School and Middlesex University. Previously she had studied fashion design, visual arts and contemporary dance in Germany. From the outset of her choreographic activity, her experience in more than one medium allowed her to have a deep insight into dance as a visual language that reaches beyond the invention of physical gesture. Her understanding of choreography was to include the shaping of the dancers' environment, be it through costumes, sets or given architectures. Her background in the different forms of visual representation also made her understand the importance of dance as a collaborative medium. Founding members of seven sisters group have been the designer Sophie Jump and the artist Ed King. Later on the team was joint by the composer Phil Durrant and the video artist Jane Hodge. As essential has been the input of the dancers who similarly act as creative collaborators throughout the devising process.
Moreover, Thomas' interest in the arts at large also holds an important key to the ways in which she came to be on the vanguard of site-specific dance work in Britain, for in the beginning of the nineties there was no precedence of any site-specific choreographic models on which she could have based her work. Similar to the theatre companies Station House Opera and Forced Entertainment who have made themselves a name in site-specific theatre, she quotes as inspirational models a combination of sixties performance art, such as Fluxus, the German dance theatre movement headed by Pina Bausch, and postmodern American theatre artists such as Robert Wilson and The Wooster Group. All of these have in common that they pay meticulous attention to both the organisation of the performance space and the relation between performer and spectator.
From the outset, Thomas' alertness to the powers of spectatorial self-consciousness has been coupled with a strong interest in social and psychological themes, predominantly viewed through a feminist perspective. After having been invited by her choreography lecturer Victoria Marks to produce a site-specific piece at Vauxhall Spring Gardens in 1993, she gradually turned more and more towards site-specific work, interested in its potential of continually redefining the contact between performer and spectator as well as the creative resources that lay hidden within sites. However, considering that a lot of work is named site-specific the moment it moves outside the theatre, she is cautious of being labeled a site-specific choreographer, insisting that it is the concept of a new piece, which necessitates a specific environment, be it in or out of the theatre.
'I look for sites that will be a potent environment for a specific idea. Take for example the performance of Trainstation, where the environment is a railway station; or The Forbidden, where we created a walk-through installation at The Royal Opera House; or On Stage, where we explored the site-specificity in a conventional theatre. Currently, there is a heated debate around the issue of what defines site-specific work. In my case there must be a definite relation with an environment, be it found or created. Since the founding of seven sisters group, I have found myself returning to two site-specific approaches: either there is a site which is so fascinating that I would want to make a piece based on that site, like Trainstation, Removed, and the upcoming Forest project, so everything follows from that site - movement, sound and design concepts. Or there is a theme that I don't want to put on in the theatre, mainly for reasons of representation and the audience set-up. In both cases, I research with the dancers and collaborators the socio-psychological dimension of the site and its historical and aesthetic characteristics.'
One of her major productions, representing the approach of the site as contextual container, is Salomé. It is also an example of how closely Thomas adapts a piece to a specific site. Salomé had first been planned to be located in an art gallery in which seven sisters group wanted to construct a maze environment. When this proved impossible, Thomas chose instead St Pancras Chambers, a Victorian railway hotel bridged over St. Pancras Station. The initial maze concept had been based on the idea of voyeurism and its inherent power structures: the spectators were to encounter, face to face, different Salomés on the way through the labyrinth and to be challenged in their voyeuristic interest. When the company started to rehearse in St Pancras Chambers, they relocated the 'maze' in the cellars of the building. The spatial strictures of the cellars and staircases created inescapably intimate contacts between spectators and dancers, whilst facilitating clearly directed voyeuristic perspectives. These were concepts carried over from the original gallery maze site. What the company left behind was the idea of playing with the concept of white and black spaces in the gallery maze. Instead they found, in the dilapidated splendour of the Victorian St Pancras Chambers, an atmosphere and historical context perfectly matched to their interest in the turn-of-the-century rendition of the Babylonian Salomé myth.
'Content and concept hadn't changed, but the environment was totally changed. The decaying hotel represented extremely well the declining Babylonian era as well as the decadence of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardesley, whose stereotyping of the Salomé figure we were trying to deconstruct. Its dilapidated state produced the perfect psychological atmosphere for a piece dealing with misconceptions around abject female sexuality. The Salomé that interested us was the Salomé as a male construct, the Salomé which had been fantasised about by the artists and poets at the turn or the century, the icon of the femme fatale, the woman who lives her sexuality not only freely but violently and excessively. We tried to build up a tension between woman as a fantasy of seduction and the reality behind it. The spectators were guided into the building one by one, along a red thread. Coming down the grand staircase, the audience was encountering different siren-like Salomés, whose silent seductiveness was interrupted by provocations such as 'do you like looking at me?'. The space opened up a lot of possibilities of how to play with voyeurism, which we couldn't have done in a traditional theatre, because everybody just sits down and looks, which is a voyeurism without consciousness.'
The effects of the piece and the power of the place were stunning: back at the entrance, audiences asked for a book of comments to share the intensity of their experience. Theatre had become an event about which the spectator was desperate to communicate. This, of course, should be the aim of any performance no matter what space the work inhabits. But the current situation seems to be that choreographers and directors working in conventional theatre spaces focus solely on the action on stage, all too often neglecting the importance of creating interactive situations in which the audience is captured, addressed and made aware of it self. The highly successful use of suspended gazes and verbal interactions used in Salomé is characteristic of Thomas' subtle audience-aware choreography. The hierarchies of looking are consistently thrown into ambiguity. Venturing out into new spaces again and again, site-specific performance has to rediscover each time from anew how it brings together performance and audience, how it creates situations of contact, challenge and intimacy. The success of seven sisters group is perhaps very much dependent on their great skill of conjuring up performative situations in places where they are least expected, reinvesting theatre with a sense of 'realness' often lacking in the clearly defined fictional framework of a visit to the theatre. Responsible for this immediacy, is Thomas' astute sensitivity towards integrating the spectator's consciousness and reactivity into the choreographic process.
This is a feature of her work, which also characterises her already mentioned other approach to site-specific choreography: the site as an origin of concepts. Most clearly based on this approach, was the landmark production Trainstation. Performed in London in 1998 at Kings Cross and Waterloo Stations, the company soon toured the piece throughout the UK and Europe visiting railway stations in Prag, Budapest, Zürich, Helsinki and Turhout (Brussels). Thomas recalls having had the initial idea when arriving at Victoria Railway Station:
'The picture that presented itself for me at Victoria was a station packed with people streaming through the rush hour. Some easy listening music was played over the tannoy like in a supermarket. The whole scenario was totally bizarre and misplaced, and yet nobody seemed to care, it just washed over people. This was a really strong guiding idea for choreographing Trainstation. Everything we did on the concourse was all about the question: is it really there, or not? Should it be there? Should you take any notice, or just let it rush by?
This scenario of people waiting on the concourse staring at announcement boards is such a theatrical picture, which appears as if designed, like a 'natural' choreography. In the rehearsal process, we started to look more and more at the movement vocabulary specific to stations, the endless patterns of people moving and passing through them, people pairing up in duos, trios, and falling apart again. Another layer was the psychological and emotional context of railway stations, which seem to be one of the few public places where you have really mundane events happening next to very personal emotional scenes - arrivals and partings, couples wishing each other farewell.'
Trainstation was divided into two separate sections. If the first piece was clearly recognisable as dance, the second piece, taking place in the concourse hall, played with the ambiguities between the 'natural' movement patterns inherent in the site and choreographed movement, exploring the subtle interfaces between social habit and art. Five dancers, dressed as commuters, scattered amongst the waiting crowd, began to perform a choreography identical with the 'natural' repertoire of their authentic co-travelers: checking the time, handling luggage, pointing at the information boards. Gradually, their choreography came more and more into relief, testing the reaction of those around them. Responses, ranging from indifference, to aversion to response, to bemusement and enthusiastic participation were extraordinary. The dancers' challenge was to master a high degree of situational freedom, integrating themselves into the ever changing shape-shifting of the crowd, their habitual unawareness as well as their surprised responses.
'What was really nice about Trainstation was its humanising effect. People began to step out of their automatism. They started to talk to each other, trying to work out what the hell was going on. The dancers suddenly seemed less important. Instead people started to wonder who was part of the choreography and who wasn't. They became aware of their unawareness of the space and the people around them, of their sleepwalking absent-mindedness. A very familiar situation had become de-familiarised and now they could see their own behaviour - but in a very light and humorous way. In Trainstation, I understood that I was less interested in audience involvement than audience awareness.'
In this interest in awakening an audience to their role as important witnesses in every single moment of life, Thomas is in accordance with other site-specific theatre companies such as Forced Entertainment, who equally put great emphasis on calling upon the spectator to be here, in this place, with these people, here and now. Be it on a station, in an department store such as Double Take (2000), in a theatre foyer as in Concrete (1999), or in a theatre such as in the site-specific theatre-based piece On Stage (2000), Thomas is always interested in raising self-awareness in the spectator through the medium of the site, the being here-ness.
Last year, seven sisters group celebrated an incredibly intense seventh anniversary with five new pieces: Removed at the new library at The Place, The Bunker Project in Essex, Ballroom in and around The Royal Festival Hall, and The Forbidden in The Clore Studio at The Royal Opera House. Thomas is now in process of preparing two new projects The Forest and The Library Project which emerged when rehearsing the six minute long Removed at The Place Library. The combination of the pieces seems to reflect a wider pattern within Thomas' work: a polarity between on the one hand, a humourous yet analytical approach as in the cases of Trainstation, Doubletake and the upcoming Library Project, and on the other hand, her explorations into a far darker and psychological territory concerned with issues of sexuality, violence and subconscious instinct: The Forbidden, Salomé, The Bunker Project, and now The Forest.
'The idea for The Forest first came up when I participated in a choreography workshop at Jacob's Pillow in the United States, where we were working for four weeks in some sheds within a forest - in this wilderness totally cut off from the world. Having left the black box of the theatre, and having explored unconventional urban locations, I am now curious about the potential of a site that lies beyond the grasp of civilization. What is the psychology, the investment we bring to this place. Just before going into rehearsal with The Forbidden last year, seven sisters group undertook a four-day research workshop in a small woodland in Wales, exploring the mythology, effects, and symbolism associated with forests. Many of these ideas surfaced in The Forbidden, which was based on the idea of the taboo in fairy tales, themselves often linked with forests.'
The Forest is scheduled to be performed in a forest near Guilford. The company is also looking for sites in the region of London. The other piece Thomas is currently engaged with is The Library Project, a piece that seems very much situated at the opposite end of The Forest and its concerns with the dark and subconscious world of human psychology. Instead Thomas expresses here an interest in the way in which the mind operates in an environment constructed for purely intellectual purposes. Or rather, she wants to examine what becomes of the body in an entirely non-physical environment that is purely reserved for the mind. Moreover, when choreographing Removed, she visited the old Reading Room at The British Museum located within Norman Foster's acclaimed Great Court. The theatricality of the architecture and the beauty of The Reading Room would make for an ideal performance site. seven sisters group is currently conducting research for this project funded by London Arts.
'Part of my fascination with the library environment is our obsession with knowledge but also the supposed non-physicality of the space. The title Removed of the library piece at The Place came from the concept that the reader goes off into an entirely different world. The creature inhabiting The Place Library, was one who had lost herself in the world of books, obsessively drifting in and out of these different worlds. What I want to find out in the upcoming research project is what exactly constitutes this physicality of the head-space, how does it express itself, or not express itself. What happens with the body when the mind travels its journey through landscapes of ideas, images, and thoughts? Another element I want to experiment with is sound. Together with the company composer Phil Durrant, I want to begin to construct a soundscape of voices and sounds which reconfigures the experience of being in one's head.'
Despite their obvious differences, their juxtaposition of instinct and mind, both The Forest and The Library Project seem to share an orientation towards discovering internal spaces. In the case of The Forest, the internality of the subconscious is projected onto the forest as both a natural as well as a metaphorical site; in the case of The Library Project, the site and its function is examined as the locus for a state of internality, in which the subject is lifted out of its body. Whatever your understanding of the term site-specific, what is very clear from my interview with Susanne Thomas is that, even within one choreographer's work, there is a multifaceted approach to this notion. What may have appeared as a passing fashion in the performing arts towards the turn of the Millennium might yet prove a far more lasting and rich phenomenon to be explored by choreographers, directors, performers and their audiences.
By Phoebe von Held in Dance Theatre Journal, vol.8 mp/4 2002 pp.20-24, 01/04/2002