Wendy Houstoun: 50 Acts

The last time I saw Wendy Houstoun was in The Space at Nottingham Contemporary about a year ago, when she performed the rather wonderful Keep Dancing, a piece in which her solo performance merged with narration, film and other media in a way that both extended our sense of scale (this one woman performing alone on a vast stage did not produce a minimal effect) and yet remained entirely intimate. It seems to be a knack she has, because her latest show – the pared down 50 Acts, receiving its world premiere at Nottdance Festival 2011 in the same cavernous venue on Thursday and Friday last week managed the same trick while taking a very different approach to its material.

Houstoun is a highly skilled dancer, but one whose approach often plays down her own skills: her opening gambit tonight is to walk onto the stage and describe her movements (the first few ‘acts’ counting down in projections on the wall behind her) as she performs them in the most deadpan possible manner. “This is the bit where the lights go down”, she says, as they do just that. “Now, this is the bit where I walk to the back of the stage…”. She strikes postures, runs around in patterns that echo looped figures running monochrome streets in old silent film footage, lies down on the floor as a voice suggests she (or perhaps we, the audience) are a bit out of breath, falls in response to gunshots.

All this makes it more powerful when she does (usually abruptly) break into the kind of movement none of us watching could hope to manage ourselves. In one sequence she sustains a whirling dervish style spin against a projected backdrop for so long that we wonder how she doesn’t make herself dizzy; in another, she raises her arm forward and high kicks her own palm in a John Cleese parody of a goose-step; in yet another, she runs through a sequence in which she explains her movements as “those of someone half my age”, “those of someone twice my age” and – finally – “those of  someone my own age”.

Age is the theme here, both her own (knowingly conscious that few dancers are still performing past 50, as she is) and the years creeping up on all of us. To the sound of Iggy Pop’s No Fun she narrates the process of being sidelined in cod-Shakespearean couplets, or takes her own pulse and hears not the circulation of blood but the stark ticking of a clock. Later still (as acts 45 and 46 move us into the final phase of the performance) a melancholy song accompanies 1950s footage of dancing girls while the voice of a Coalition politician insists on not burdening the young with debt, proposing – in effect – to make a substantial percentage of the population ‘redundant’ as the means of saving the rest.

The link to an earlier joke in reference to the old being cast onto ice-floes to relieve the burden on their tribes is hard to miss, though Houstoun’s approach leaves us to join such dots on our own account. But if that sounds clumsily political, the harder hitting material is granted its power by being so often framed in lighter tones: one sequence sees Houstoun breaking LP records with a hammer in time to a musical score, another has her dancing madly while a bit of standard-issue Arts Council blurb about the social benefits of contemporary dance (not least, its ability to include those of all ages – a somewhat ironic note) scrolls rather sarcastically across the wall above her.*

In short, it’s what a Star Trek character might call ‘dance Jim, but not as we know it’ – a warm, intimate, jokey and finally affecting hybrid of  things chosen not because they belong to any particular discipline, but because they work in helping to build layers of meaning within this particular performance. When I had the pleasure of talking to Houstoun a few years ago, as she prepared to tour Desert Island Dances, her comments then still seem pertinent to the work she continues to make: “It’s about imagination”, she explained, “how we try and fail to escape from ourselves, and the gestures from the past that become part of us as we get older”. 

She acknowledged the impact of her work in collaboration with others, including Sheffield’s Forced Entertainment – an outfit whose approach to traditional acting echoes Houstoun’s to our expectations of dance: both pretend not to be acting or dancing, in order to make those parts where acting or dancing happen feel all the more real: less performance, more direct manifestation of feeling onstage. Houstoun’s work with Forced Entertainment goes back many years, and the aesthetic and approaches are often very similarly grounded in a kind of post-modern reflexiveness that presses beyond irony and finds its way back (often by oblique means) to genuine emotional connections.

When we talked back in 2007 or 2008, I wondered if some kind of analogy with Les Dawson’s off-key piano-playing might be assumed in her own downplaying of her real skill, and her response was unambiguous: “It’s important to have technique, but also vital to be prepared to make an idiot of yourself”, she said. “I have a lot of influences and Tommy Cooper is one of them”. The sense that getting the joke wrong makes it funnier, or that seeming to fluff one trick might allow you to slyly pull off something far more impressive in the confusion, is all part of Houstoun’s method. 50 Acts was as good a reflection of the effectiveness of that approach as anything she’s made to date.

* As a footnote, Houstoun also, at one point in 50 Acts, unwinds cassette tape and runs it through her fingers: it might be worth noting that unravelled magnetic tapes have also been an occasional subject in Anne Collier‘s work. Probably a coincidence, but it adds a feeling that Houstoun’s performance connects with the work in the upstairs galleries in some slightly oblique way…

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