Eve Stainton with Joseph Funnell and Gaby Agis
Rubby Sucky Forge
15 October 2020
and from Splayed’s digital season streamed work by Claire Cunningham, Mele Broomes, Cade & MacAskill
Splayed Festival details
London, The Place
As my first outing to The Place theatre since lockdown, it would be tempting to waste words on describing the disorientating experience of being an audience member in a socially distanced theatre, complete with temperature checks on entry and mask-wearing throughout. Or how weird it felt to be sitting in isolation to other audience members, yet enjoying their presence or how thrilling to be watching real, fleshy bodies moving in front of me. But instead, I will focus on the work itself and the disorientation that one should feel at a queer dance festival that disrupts heterosexual norms and replaces them with a multitude of other possibilities – aesthetics, sensibilities, embodiments. Never has the time felt so ripe for queer work to be celebrated and how fitting that Rubby Sucky Forge is the first performance to be presented live at The Place since lockdown.
As part of the inspiringly disruptive and eclectically queer Splayed Festival 2020, curated by Amy Bell, Eve Stainton with Joseph Funnell and Gaby Agis negotiate a circuit of multiple atmospheres which like unsettled weather fronts continually change as they separate, collide or morph together. These atmospheres are occupied by and created with a range of materials: human bodies, printed fabric, sound, film, candles, cigarette lighters, metal poles and steel clamps. Although it’s an intimate and warm space, there’s something dystopian about the environment that we see before us – parts of theatre equipment, fragmented bits of things, the plaintive sound of cats meowing. It’s a space that contains vestiges of something, that points to what’s missing and where nothing is whole except for the performers’ bodies.
Funnell, Agis and Stainton manipulate the materials as they move amongst them, each on their own journeys, tenderly bringing emotional value to inanimate objects as they interact with them, breaking down my initial sense of alienation. Orientating themselves around the materials in both abstract and tangibly physical ways, they form a mood or ambience that seems to hover around each. Some of the most intriguing relationships are those forged between dancers and the hard metal poles, as skin and metal rub together. There’s both a tragedy and a beauty in those interactions as bodies make contact with the unyielding, cold surfaces. Funnell lovingly lubricates a long pole with hand sanitiser. Stainton caressingly surfs over a set of metal bars, while Agis gently traces the stark architecture of the perpendicular pole above her. All are absorbed in what they’re doing, bringing the utmost care and attention to how they perform.
Sometimes the connections between the materials are visually obvious; for example the psychedelic images including dildos, faces and gaudy genitalia on Stainton’s digital film collage – which swell, dissipate or merge – resemble those on the costumes worn by each of the dancers, designed by Sophie Donaldson. Both display a delightful extravaganza of oozing, lurid colours and shapes which both dismember and create new combinations of bodies.
But at other times the connection is tacit as the dancers explore objects, movement or sound. Stainton suggests a ritual of mourning as they quietly play with lighters and candles or in another scene charges the space with manic dancing on the spot, shifting their weight from one foot to the other in quick, repetitive steps, making wave-like motions with their hands. Agis moves reflectively and searching through the space engrossed in her performance of stillness and discovery, her musings driven by focus and a sense of purpose. While Funnell emits a playful and sensual energy as they carry out practical tasks of arranging poles on the ground, or attaching sinister metal clamps, each action executed with love.
Dreamy fluid atmospheres segue into harsh angular ones where anger is unleased in a pole clashing trio. It’s both exhilarating and nerve-wracking to watch and I find myself shuddering with affect as I see the dancers’ bodies reverberate with the impact of metal colliding with metal. I notice their eyes alert with anticipation, animating faces and escaping the restraints of the masks. The sound of metal on metal is harsh yet rhythmic, its cacophony sets off a series of violent eruptions that release tensions and clears the air. Could this be a reaction to the frustration, loneliness and uncertainty triggered by the pandemic?
The creativity of the performers in Rubby, Sucky, Forge as they shape new intimacies with unlikely objects, as they use queer strategies to displace dominant attitudes and stagnant perspectives, show us the pleasure in embracing the unfamiliar. What better preparation for living in uncertain times. I feel so much gratitude for performers and The Place staff for making the show happen and for demonstrating a culture of care that makes anything possible.
Two weeks after Rubby, Sucky, Forge I watch two films and an audio, part of the Splayed’s digital programme (available online for a limited period) that focus on queer strategies as offering alternative understandings of inanimate objects and nature. Claire Cunningham’s poetic and philosophical audio continues the theme of forming queer intimacies with inanimate objects – here Cunningham addresses her crutches in an ode of love and gratitude. Quanimacy calls on the theories of animacy, how we make objects human, a belief system that brings value to everything that is excluded by white, dominant, heteronormative culture.
Both films feature queer bodies occupying wildly beautiful Scottish landscapes, questioning the relationship between nature and what is natural. Mele Broomes’s undulating body travels through mountain valleys, moorlands and lochs – propelled onwards by her forceful, ululating voice. An unusual sight in this particular environment – a black woman scantily clothed in bright pink – her performance is deeply moving as she embodies both vulnerability and power, claiming the territory around her as her own.
Performance artists Cade & MacAskill’s touching and provocative documentary framed through their own queer live performance, reveals the couple’s experience of lockdown. They mourn the loss of safe, familiar spaces where queer performance happens – sweaty, dingy, intimate private rooms and how they now have to perform their queerness in public. Similarly to Broomes, the couple relocate to Scotland during a staycation, this time to the seaside, enjoying the freedoms that the vast, empty expanses of north-west Scotland offer. Musing over their sightings of the extraordinary Minky whale they reflect on how there’s nothing normal or straight about these mammals or their habitat.