Afternoon Dust

Dance and opera in Digbeth

A few years ago I saw a ‘remix’ of a dance piece by Judson Dance Theater alumna Lucinda Childs at a festival in Amsterdam. The piece was titled ‘Radial Courses’, apparently because the choreographer felt she couldn’t get away with calling it ‘Running in Circles’ — which would’ve been a more accurate description of the dance itself. I was reminded of this piece when watching three members of Birmingham Dance Network performing in response to Donald Rodney’s Psalms, a work of art consisting of a powered wheelchair programmed to move autonomously in circles, spirals, and figures-of-eight, all while avoiding obstacles such as people.

While the opening section of the Psalms dance was very much about running (and sometimes walking, or creeping very slowly) in circles and spirals, the following duet by Becca Thomas and Suzanne Grubham began to mimic more closely the wheelchair’s unique way of moving — hesitant, jerky, then suddenly striding forward a metre or two before hesitating again (think of a baby Roomba just learning to walk). Then Genevieve Say danced with the wheelchair itself, guiding it while at the same time dodging its jerky, unpredictable movements, trying to keep a hand on the chair’s joystick. Finally, Grubham played the semi-passive wheelchair while Thomas guided her, using the same jerky and stop-start movements. It made me think about how wheelchair users often come to see their chair as an extension of their own body, and how the chair’s way of moving might affect their own sense of self. Rodney’s voice musing on his own experiences of relying on a wheelchair from an audio installation in an adjacent space only added to the poignancy.

Earlier in the evening I caught a performance by Zach Dawson and Christina Jones at Stryx, in which the latter sang Dido’s Lament (Purcell’s famous “Remember me” refrain) to the former’s harmonically discordant trumpet accompaniment, while both of them lay under a thick brown blanket. The aria has strong resonances for me, and it was pleasantly surprising to hear it again in another unexpected context. Sometimes Digbeth First Fridays are subdued and sometimes they are inspiring, but last night it surpassed itself.

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