Creating worlds: Philipa Rothfield on Lilian Steiner’s Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator and Rachel Arianne Ogle’s i have loved the Stars too Fondly to be Fearful of the Night
At first glance, these two works – Lilian Steiner’s A surreal manifesto – Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator and Rachel Arianne Ogle A Digital Melodrama – i have loved the Stars too Fondly to be Fearful of the Night – seem to be very different. Steiner’s sensibility and surreal imagination feels very 20th century, while Ogle’s work cleaves to a virtual sensibility.
What unites them is the way both are concerned to create a world. In Steiner’s case, the world comes from inside the choreographer; in Ogle’s, a world emerges from the interface of body and technology.
A surreal manifesto – Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator
The back wall is draped. Fabric falls in a curve towards the floor. A woman enters, dressed in bright metallic costume. She is electric, tensile. A metallic zing infuses her movements, which are clear, assertive and sharp. A mixture of assertion and submission, she will not stop. We see snatches of marching movements, a militaristic catch-phrase here and gone, here and gone. A man with a saxophone strides in. He catches and drops the woman. The man and woman do their own thing, ultimately to connect again. Cut.
The dancer (Lilian Steiner) speaks into a microphone, reading from a long scroll of paper. This is performance poetry, from the heart. Her words give an interior perspective, the thoughts and emotions that underlie the dancing we have just seen. Reuben Lewis’ saxophone soundings gives the words an atmosphere – potent and unresolved.
At one point, Steiner speaks of “the drama of the moment”. This is a curious turn of phrase. Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator does not feel like a drama, if by drama we mean a turn of events. I don’t have the sense that I am watching events unfold; rather I feel that I am being offered an imaginary perspective upon the world, one full of qualities, feelings, and energies. A world from a particular point of view, one which Steiner seeks to communicate – in words, sound and movement.
At the end of the poetry section, a third performer, Lydia Connolly-Hiatt, joins Steiner. Both are wearing new costumes. The two dancers look like figures from a Dali painting: Connolly-Hiatt has a cloud-like formation over her chest, while Steiner has two large symbols hanging from her belt. There is no key to decipher these images. The two dancers are well matched; they participate in the same kinaesthetic imaginary, figures in a surreal landscape.
And now we enter the last phase of the work. The back wall has become an illuminated worm, a simple wave echoed in the new outfits worn by both dancers. No longer people, the moving has become qualitative, a force less than human.
Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator is a phantasmagorical work. Elusive, symbolic, and opaque, it moves between the human, the symbolic, the surreal and the abstract. Unwilling to reveal itself, it is nonetheless precise in composition and execution. This is a complex piece, opaque, heartfelt, poetic, epic in its small way.
A Digital Melodrama – i have loved the Stars too Fondly to be Fearful of the Night
Two men enter and take up their position beside their laptops, either side of the darkened space. Towards the back of the space lies a beautiful curve, rather like the fluid width of the Technicolour cinema of the 1960s. That elegant backdrop is a text, a canvas, a digital tabula rasa. Long ago, it would have been a wax tablet. Now it is decidedly digital.
Grid-like images emerge, four-square dots against a grey background. Dot formations appear and are erased, presumably the live workings of the men at their laptops. Colour saturates the screen, feeding my vision. The colours are sublime, powerful. A pulsating circle appears. It shifts to become its own after-image, a coloured circle becoming a black hole. The soundscape turns this visual experience into something else. If the visual field is out there, fixed in front of us, the sound is everywhere. It penetrates the space, permeates my hearing.
A lone figure emerges in front of the screen, unlit. She is a silhouette, a daguerreotype, a dark cut-out of female form, almost immobile but actually, imperceptibly, advancing towards the audience. She walks forward, bisecting the screen, juxtaposing her outline against its imagery. This work has none of the humanism of Steiner’s dance: it’s cool, very cool. And yet, as abstract as this is, as digital in imagination, there is a narrative of sorts. She begins at the back of the room, moves step by step towards us. Suddenly she is lit – we see her all too briefly, creating sharp shapes, fast moves. And now, dark again, she recedes. A digital melodrama of sorts, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Towards the end, a soundscape is built from deconstructed voices. Once human, these almost recognisable sounds are somehow metaphysical, gestures towards the greater cosmos or, perhaps, another reality. Science fiction has an ambivalent relation to the real. It emerges from the actual, from this world, yet its impetus is to create another world.
It feels like i have loved the Stars too Fondly to be Fearful of the Night has something of that ambivalence: on the one hand, it is of this world – its gendering of the body as woman, and the virtual as the domain of male creators feels familiar. On the other hand, these three creatives become as one, creating a synaesthesia that transgresses the separation of the senses. Sound, image, and body work together to create this transitory sensory world.
i have loved the Stars too Fondly to be Fearful of the Night is described as an immersive installation: and yet the audience was seated. We couldn’t move through this world beyond experiencing its creative power. Full of affect and sensation, it was immersive yet also alien, an outside being to which I was witness. My senses were aroused but I didn’t feel inside the experience in the sense in which, say, Luke George’s Public Actions manages to fold its audience, so that we feel inside the work.
It’s not that the audience must move. It is possible to shift the audience by shifting the work itself, to unseat or undermine audience perceptions. I think this is where the narrative frame re-enters; the progression of the figure towards and away had a certain predictability about it, affording the spectator a little too much perceptual comfort. If I could make a wish, it would be to see this work extend its tentacles to displace the spectator’s perceptions towards a less certain future.
Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator, choreographed by Lilian Steiner, sound design by Marco Cher-Gibard and Reuben Lewis, lighting design by Jennifer Hector. Performed by Lilian Steiner, Lydia Connolly-Hiatt and Reuben Lewis. i have loved the Stars too Fondly to be Fearful of the Night, choreographed and performed by Rachel Arianne Ogle. Set, lighting designer and operation by Benjamin Cisterne, sound design and live production by Luke Smiles (motion laboratories), costume design by Thomas Alfred Bradley. Double Bill at The Substation as part of Dance Massive. Closed.