The Porcelain Project

Grace Ellen Barkey & Needcompany
Silk Street Theatre

Production photo

This 90-minute performance piece, part of the SPILL Festival, combines the work of potter Lot Lemm, choreographer Grace Ellen Barkley and their designs with the music of Thomas Adès, Maarten Seghers and Rombout Willems, danced by and co-created with Misha Downey, Julien Faure, Benoît Gob, Tijen Lawton, Maarten Seghers and Yumiko Funaya, with lighting by Koen Raes and Ken Hioco. The programme gives no means of identifying individual dancers, and though they have their particular qualities and skills in these complex patterns of original and interwoven movement, they all shine for their physical versatility and their tongue-in-cheek wit.

This is not an art installation that gets danced around, the porcelain does not seem to be making any particular sculptural statement, though there is porcelain everywhere and props and costume elements are also made of porcelain. The large performance space is enclosed on three sides by white half screens, beneath which, behind, are a battery of spots on either side you can see 'off-stage' performers legs. A row of large ceramic objects like balusters or bulky candle holders separate stage from audience, porcelain pieces hang on wires from above and from frames along the back of the stage and mounted on free-standing and moveable display units. At one side downstage a table is stacked with plates and bowls and porcelain fragments; the show proper begins with this table vibrating and pieces falling off it. Dancers wear ceramic hats, ceramic armbands, ceramic noses, phalluses and other physical extensions. They fly dishes on the end of fishing rods, raise and lower rows of hanging pots to match their own movements, create a tinkle as the brush against a piece or a tea-cup chiming instrument as hanging vessels sway against each other.

The Barbican's publicity describes the show as 'Exploring the history of porcelain in relation to its colonial value .. The dancers embody the porous material, enabling them to extend beyond its limitations, igniting imaginations towards the hope that a different world is possible.' I don't know where that idea comes from but on this showing it is either pretentious poppycock or using a dance vocabulary unknown to me. More apt is the publicist's suggestion that this is 'an erotic allegory about power, lust and desire,' though even that seems to overstate the case - what we get is actually much more fun.

There is a zany clown to start the show, his nose turned into an inquisitive bird-like beak, his movements struttingly avian, a king with a ceramic sceptre that looks like a plumber's plunger - strong shades of Ubu there, along with a look straight out of Alice in Wonderland with hooped and layered skirts that can be used as ruffs or coyly hid behind, at one point leaving only a shape with arms and legs. There is a lot of sexual posturing with those porcelain candlestick shapes used as dildos, pawing and canoodling straight and gay but you can't take any of it seriously. This is like children saying naughty words rather than really about rape and sexual exploitation: the whole performance seems to be sending itself up. I don't think the ceramics really make any point but the cast connive with the audience to share their high spirits and a good time is had by all. Forget pretentions, enjoy this as entertainment.

At Silk Street Theatre until 15th April 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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