Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Gestures and actions

It's dusk and the sky is a lovely purple colour. I drop my gaze to just above the roof tops and the purple has drained away and I can see the remaining vestige of daylight. It is a yellowy turquoise and is rapidly turning to dark blue. The sky is clear so we might see some stars tonight. It is 4.46pm and in 10 days it will be the shortest day of the year, otherwise known as the Midwinter Solstice.

A number of traditions associated with the solstice have been incorporated into that other great festival which follows hard on its heels. The yule log and yule wreaths made from holly and ivy makes for a traditional Christmas and the pagan festival is now nothing more than a background note to the main event. Just the other day I was confusing the pagan with the Christian when I was browsing around Mysteries, a new-age shop in Covent Garden, looking for a Christmas present for a friend who's an atheist. Are you confused because I think I am.

That same evening I was part of a group celebrating the end of the autumn academic term. There was a festive air in the Palm Tree pub while we enjoyed eating, drinking and chatting about our holiday plans. Then we were busy pulling on our coats, hats and scarves and grabbing our bags to walk the short distance to the Chisenhale Dance Space. There was a sense of anticipation after we'd hiked up three flights of stairs and queued quietly and respectfully before piling into the performance space. There may have been an audience of about 100 sitting on the raised benches and I was tapping my feet impatiently wondering when the 'evening of new work and exploration' would begin as there wasn't much to look at.

Evidently the Chisenhale Dance Space has been a 'seedbed for research and development in movement arts and independent dance' for over 25 years. We were to watch the work of four artists and then answer questions put to us by them about the performances. Helga Stromberger's Body and Light was fascinating. She was exploring the potential of projecting video images onto dancers and she tried various combinations of movement and images including sound. This performance was most interesting and some of it was quite hypnotic. Like Helga's Body and Light, Rachel Oxley's Dilate employed a number of women dancers who remained isolated from each other but in this case the focus was on gesture, speech and movement and sometimes it was very amusing, but sometimes frustrating when, for example, we had to watch the dancers sitting on chairs which were lying on the floor and they couldn't get up. The performance by SOFt was a complete contrast. SOFt are a collective of five dancers who work regularly together exploring improvisation and their work was wonderfully physical and some of the arm gestures reminded me of Martha Graham's work from the 1920s.

It was the second performer of the evening who bored me silly at the time but paradoxically has given me more pause for thought in the few days since than any of the other dancers. His performance wasn't a dance in the accepted sense at all. It was a series of actions of locking and unlocking his imaginary bike lock and we, the audience, were supposed to be able to follow everything he was doing. He said he less interested in demonstrating gestures than in actions. I didn't realise there was much difference between the two but consulting the dictionary I read that gestures are 'postures or movements expressive of sentiment or passion' whereas actions are movements without the emotional component.

While the imaginary bike lock was being opened and shut I mentally returned to my visit to Mysteries earlier in the day. I'd entered the shop hoping to enjoy a few minutes of mindless browsing at the gifts and books I would never buy before I went in search of food. I often do this and occasionally buy a card or candle on my way out.
The shop girls were busy chatting to each other very animatedly and weren't much interested in the customers. I began my journey around the shop by peering at the crystal jewellery on display in the glass case which never has any prices on show. Then I turned round and saw some china mugs. I was amused by the decoration and the message painted inside them. I wondered about buying one of them then decided against it. Then my attention was diverted by a massage glove hanging on a hook above my head and I reached up to take it down and inspect it more closely. There were more of the mugs hanging next to the glove and before I could get to the glove I managed to smash one of the mugs on the floor. This shocked me but didn't bother the shop girls who simply cleared the broken bits away and continued their conversation. On reflection I don't know whether I was using actions or gestures during this episode but the accident was certainly mindless.