Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Skinworks

Bodies in Flight
Hoxton Hall and touring
(2004)

Skinworks image

Bodies in Flight is one of the most interesting young performance companies operating in the UK at the moment. Their productions are often collaborations between performers, musicians and visual artists set in motion to present installations, interactive video projects as well as performances that seek to break down the barriers between stage and audience. Their work is always thoughtful, based on sound, progressive artistic concepts and genuinely pushes at the boundaries of stage conventions that have in the UK remained predominantly conservative.

Essentially, what I find so challenging about their work is that it can be seen as an on-going investigation into the very nature of interdisciplinary collaboration. They are partly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board and this is an apt recognition of the role they can play in the development of performance as a genre in this country.

Hoxton Hall is a perfect space for Bodies in Flight. Placing their work in this space is ipso facto flying in the face of conventions.

Hoxton Hall is probably the only example of one of the many small-scale Victorian Music Halls still surviving in this country. From the mid-19th century onwards it has served a local community, and in that respect it must be unique. It is utterly beautiful in its own right. With its typically Victorian cast iron balconies, it is an architectural gem, a part of our cultural heritage. But its continued existence in a vibrant area of our own East End, with the lively street market bustling beyond the doors, has been over-shadowed by the high-profile campaign to restore its close neighbour, the Hackney Empire.

The stars of stage and screen have not turned out to add their celebrity status to Hoxton Hall's campaign for refurbishment. It doesn't have an enormous proscenium arch and balconies replete with gilded cherubs. Perhaps Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin did not grace the boards there. But that is what makes it so special. It is still functioning as a local community centre.

Over the last few years Hoxton Hall has been offering space to young performance companies making a radical departure from our staid theatrical traditions. To my mind this is a visionary project. These young companies, often working in interdisciplinary collaboration, like Bodies in Flight, are mostly marginalised by the funding bodies in the UK. And with the closure of the Mickery Circuit on the Continent ten years ago, it is becoming more difficult to tap into the European funding that helped in the past to sustain companies such as Forced Entertainment in the UK and the illustrious Wooster Group in America.

In the UK performance work is regarded as a minor appendage to our theatrical tradition. Theatre critics brought up on a diet of literary theatre and realism feel threatened by the experimental nature interdisciplinary performance. They just don't have the vocabulary to deal with it, so, it seems to them 'arty-farty' and 'pretentious'. Phenomenal amounts of funding in the UK go mainly to prestigious ventures such as the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. There has even been some discussion about subsidising commercial West End theatre from the public purse. Excuse me? Can we get our priorities straight?

European funding ensures that radical performance work on the Continent is sustained. International collaborations between theatres in Germany, France, Belgium and The Netherlands operate to give funding and space to performance companies so that this genre can grow in expertise. Our own performance companies are denied developmental opportunities on the same scale. And, yet, there is some wonderful work out there.

So, three cheers for Hoxton Hall! Hip-Hip Hooray!

The latest adventure to come from Bodies in Flight, Skinworks, works exceptionally well in Hoxton's old Victorian Music Hall. In a space designed for audiences to sit on seats in safe passivity and watch performers on a raised stage, Skinworks, flummoxes our expectations. We are admitted to the stage itself, where we stand watching a huge screen where ten young Americans enter a website to participate via a chat-room in cybersex.

While we are standing watching the screen the performers are using the area ordinarily accorded to the audience seating to run back and forth in semi-darkness with repetitive gestures, and, as they become tired and sweaty, the movements take on more urgency, more determination, more fluidity.

Soon, they are approaching us and taking us one by one to chairs they have placed around the space. The rest of the action takes place around us. There is music, poetical monologues and characters becoming increasingly embroiled in emotional devastation.

But this is not pornography. Even on the screen we see nothing more provocative than some nakedness. Skinworks is firmly underpinned with contemporary philosophical thoughts on connections made over the world-wide web.

What happens to the body in cyberspace? Can we release ourselves from the constrictions of gender in cyberspace? Can we circumvent our inhibitions? Is cybersex liberating, or, by allowing us to transgress boundaries that our in-grained social niceties impose on us, is it ultimately degrading? Does cyberspace allow us in relative anonymity to play out the darkness in our souls, the deviancy we might want to commit to were we not embarrassed by actual physical contact?

Skinworks broaches some riveting questions that are crucial now we are all operating in cyberspace on one level or another.

However, I must say that what I saw on Saturday must be considered work-in-progress. Bodies in Flight are offering Skinworks to venues as a touring production, and, no doubt, they will continue to develop it. They seemed to me to be in that phase of devising when one falls back on clichéd solutions to weld the segments together. They can go further and I am sure they will.

Also, with the audience in such close proximity, the excess of emotions seemed at times too phoney. I apologise for using a rather trite old paradox from our bog standard Method-Acting tradition: but 'less is more'.

If companies such as Bodies in Flight are going to progress and develop excellent performance work in the UK, they need respect for their work, funding, and spaces such as Hoxton Hall that will allow them access to audiences.

They need audiences willing to make that journey with them. Go and see Skinworks if it comes to a venue close by, and participate in the process of giving us some great performance work in the UK.

And go and see the other performance groups to which Hoxton Hall is giving their space. The work you will see there will challenge all your faculties, and, after all, that is what theatre must be, challenging.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher