Afternoon Dust

Human-Sized Forest: Dog Kennel Hill Project at King’s Wood

Last time I saw Dog Kennel Hill Project, they were busy sending up theatre’s aspirations to the sublime in the bitingly satirical Devil in the Detail. Their new piece Marks, Measures, Maps and Mind takes things a step further, leading audiences right into the heart of Nature itself — into that which underwrites and provides the model for every attempt at the sublime in art. Commissioned by Stour Valley Arts, Turner Contemporary, and South East Dance, the piece is a roughly forty-five minute guided walk through the forest at King’s Wood, Kent, with a large company of dancers performing a number of movement studies, solo or in groups, around the audience.

So how do you mount a critique of the natural sublime? In the case of Marks, the answer seemingly proposed is to reduce the grandiose vastness of Nature down to human scale, measuring it out according to the dimensions of human bodies. If the forest can be marked out through the movements of bodies — running, jumping, swinging, tilting, or simply standing or lying still — then it can be understood by minds. Or rather: the moving is understanding, is making sense of the space. Many of the ideas for the piece were generated using simple wooden devices that resemble old-fashioned tools used in the making of maps, diagrams, and architectural measurements: compasses, set-squares, wooden weights, and the like. Acting as prostheses, these instruments helped the dancers’ bodies make sense of spaces — not just their dimensions, but other properties such as the weight of objects within them, the resistance of their grounds, the curvatures of their circles, and so on.

To present a body-scaled understanding of Nature is to make it as vulnerable as one – a gesture that draws attention to the power of moving bodies to affect spaces in ways both positive and negative. Nature is only all-powerfully sublime for as long as our bodies continue to tremble before it. But the effect works both ways, because a body-scaled nature is still able to resist and restrict the free passage of bodies, turning conquest into something more like a negotiation. Working out, working through, becomes a way of saying no to “magic and make-believe” and to the “seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer” — whether the performer in question is a virtuoso superstar or a carefully managed and staged idyllic wilderness1. Nature may only be nature, but bodies are also only bodies — something it seems pertinent to point out, given the work’s status as a part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Marks did a great job of attuning the bodies of the audience to the outdoor environment — not only the humans (including a number of small ones), but also the dogs in our group adopted a measure of the forest’s silence and stillness as the performance progressed. We mapped and measured through our walking, watching, listening, and thinking, but the forest made its mark on us too. I’m really pleased to see traditionally ‘visual’-arts oriented institutions working together with dance makers — hopefully there’ll be much more of this to come. All arts are linked to time and space in one way or another, and the roles played by moving bodies in making sense of these time-spaces can often be made clearer through dance’s explicit engagement of those bodies. Additional kudos to Stour Valley Arts for arranging a free bus service from the nearest train station, without which this carless body wouldn’t have been able to attend!

  1. The words quoted are from Yvonne Rainer’s (in)famous ‘NO Manifesto’, first published in 1965 and quoted in Wood (2007), Yvonne Rainer: The Mind is a Muscle, p20. Rainer’s dances, which she described as “work-like” (ibid., p.84), can be understood as precursors to Dog Kennel Hill Project’s own attempts to work past dance’s attachment to the theatrical sublime. ↩︎