Sadler’s Wells Wild Card series
Christopher Matthews / Formed View
My Body’s An Exhibition
London, Sadler’s Wells
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
Choreographer, performance artist and curator Christopher Matthews occupies both the public and private spaces of Sadler’s Wells and the Lilian Baylis inviting us to feast our eyes on bodies – live, filmed and narrated. Bodies are represented in live durational installations, visual art pieces and looped video works with an eclectic pop music playlist in this fun, experiential exhibition which queers dance history through the lens of popular culture. Matthews writes in his lengthy programme notes that his curational choices are inspired by Janet Jackson’s song Feedback (2008) which deals with the complex relationship between performer and spectator and the desire for ‘feedback’. We’re invited, as we travel through the building guided by cheery purple signs and helpful ushers, to contemplate the role of the spectator in observing the body, how we see bodies and what it means to be seen.
The two dancer/ushers who show me the way, creating balletic sculptures as they move sedately up the stairs, pausing, extending, turning, already confuse the role of usher as someone who watches and is watched. There’s plenty of opportunity to experience what it feels like to be observed; we pass through a blinding spot-light and are encouraged to feel a moment of stardom; we find the dressing rooms, transformed into glittery discos with music and synced lighting – an invitation to dance! Multiple mirrors check our inhibitions forcing us to observe ourselves as well as others.
Matthews tackles issues of spectatorship and body image through a queer lens questioning what happens when creative processes, design, choreography and the theatre experience itself are queered. While the exhibition does not provide us with answers it does enable us to engage with multiple perspectives and offers alternative aesthetics to those of the white, slender stereotypes so prevalent within European ballet and contemporary dance. For example in a collage of black and white images from the Sadler’s Wells Archive, we see fragments of ‘perfect’ dancers which have been cut up and reassembled into posters of disfigured monsters that create radically different images. In Purple Dance a film by Fenia Kotsopoulou zooms into a close-up of the dancer’s upper back and head as she writhes and contorts. The manipulation of green colour on the body disrupts a voyeuristic gaze as it makes the image seem alien-like. Nasheeka Nedsreal’s film N:S:H:K displays a psychedelic collage of her own body as she transforms herself into different figurations – a transient, unstable body, defying any one gaze or positioning.
The film component in the exhibition is strikingly strong and works effectively to unpack Matthew’s themes of resisting the heteronormative gaze. Fenia Kotsopoulou’s eulogy for deceased drag King Diane Torr, is a beautifully melancholic film where the dancer slowly marks out flamenco steps against a dark background, rarely looking up. Her facial beard and feminine dress confusing any notion of a fixed gender identity, the haunting choreography is full of sadness and loss. In contrast to the delicate pathos of Kotsopulou’s, Myrid Carten’s Star Factory is a brazen, up-beat portrayal of women on a night out fixing their make-up, posing in front of mirrors and chatting in the toilets of a pub. Every pedestrian action they perform is carefully choreographed but their bodies are neither dance-trained nor similar. The intimate filming of their interactions creates an empowering feeling of solidarity and comfort of women in possession of their own image.
Projected onto the main stage, Songhay Toldon’s Dance triptych 1/3 depicts deep nostalgia for club culture. The film shows multiple angles of Toldon dancing in an empty theatre, losing himself in waves of euphoric movement. His loose limbed, street dance style and sense of blissful abandonment triggers kinaesthetic empathy as I watch, twitching yet unable to move away from the arresting image.
Matthews seeks to ask many questions in his curational role which at times make experiencing the exhibition exhausting and overloaded. Our journey through the building is cluttered with content that endlessly diverts our attention away from the more coherent themes. However, at the same time I enjoy this meandering messiness and celebrate it as part of the exhibition’s charm. Tucked away in nooks and crannies I notice small photographs of someone in a Wonder Woman costume; a pile of queer theory dance books; a pair of point shoes in a box with a pile of resin; “I love Bruce Nauman” graffitied in lipstick on toilet mirrors. Memorabilia that infuse the exhibition with touching personal reflections. Traversing the rabbit warren of the empty theatre, ghosts of the past and present are felt in the empty changing rooms and toilets – a dressing room dedicated to Rudolf Nureyev complete with a red rose. These installations featuring the absent body are a lovely acknowledgement of Sadler’s Wells’ history and the bodies that have passed through it. Matthews’ personal memories from his own body’s archive are on display both to see and hear. As we travel down the long stairwell we hear a podcast of the artist recounting the endless comments received throughout his training about his ‘untypical’ dancer’s body; evidence for his belief that his career was dictated by his body image rather than his technical skill.
When we reach the two live performance installations at the end of our journey we are experts at consuming the dancer’s image from multiple angles. Walking onto the brightly lit main stage behind the safety curtain we watch Matthew’s My body’s No 1 where dancers (Fraser Buchanan and Ben Knapper) undulate sensually on plinths, moving in and out of synch. Lit and positioned to expose their balletically sculpted bodies, their actions are languidly pulsing in a homoerotic spectacle that recalls ancient Greek sculpture and a hedonistic gay dance floor.
It’s a very different scene downstairs in the dark, Lilian Baylis Studio. Here Samir Kennedy and Elena Light, wearing black adidas track suits, watch each other move as each works out phrases that queer the masculinity suggested by the design and costume of the duet. In a stripping away of gay spectacle, glamour and macho aesthetics, Lads celebrates the non-conforming, fluid body that escapes binaries and taps into a less classist vision of dance.
My body is an exhibition is massively ambitious in terms of scale and content and its extensive list of dance artists, visual and sound artists pays testament to Matthews’ exciting, multi-disciplinary curational vision. As spectators we have to work hard to navigate the roles of observer and objects on display and at times this is both fatiguing and exhilarating. Sometimes I lose track of what exactly Matthews wants to prioritise in the work, but the pleasure of exploring a theatre that has been empty for most of the year and thinking about how its spaces have framed multiple bodies over the years, re-focusses my wandering mind.