Tuesday 5 July 2016

Dancing in the Garden of Stories: A4O at Ovid's Garden Party, Winterbourne Gardens

Saturday 18th June was a high point in Avid for Ovid’s calendar; our first performance in an open-air setting, and also outside Oxford.  Ovid’s Garden Party saw the convergence of two separate endeavours united in their investigations of Ovid: the grand opening of the specially designed Ovid’s Garden at Winterbourne House and Gardens in Birmingham - a project lead by classicist and garden historian Miriam Bay, in collaboration with garden designer and writer Kathryn Aalto - and Avid for Ovid’ s explorations of Ancient Roman Pantomime through the interpretation of excerpts from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Torrential rain had fallen earlier in the week leaving lawns squelching underfoot; but in compensation the beautiful grounds’ characterful areas provided a verdant frame, and the formal pathways of the newly created Ovid’s Garden were dry for dancing as some welcome patches of blue sky and sunshine began to emerge.  Invited guests and members of the public heard fascinating presentations by Miriam Bay and Kathryn Aalto and then watched our performance, a compilation of already existing and new works tailored for the occasion and setting; and toasted the coming-together of this imaginative project with a glass of bubbly after. 

Here follow some reflections on our experience and our particular pieces... including some of the evocative performance images taken by Joel Mills; for which grateful thanks.

Avid for Ovid have been dancing and sounding tragedy for three years now and it was great to have put together a coherent performance around a beautiful, relevant and resonant space. Building on our recent exploratory work with movement director Struan Leslie we structured a series of solo encounters with benign and malevolent nature, in the order of enchantress (with herbs and dragons); horny deity chases huntress nymph; enchantress (with herbs and porcine following); radiantly self-promoting deity chases air-headed nymph.  We framed these often quite jocular outings with a more serious and unsettling series of interludes where the ensemble lined up to suggest potential metamorphoses as a prelude to each episode. This hinted at the underlying threat in each narrative and in this I hope we caught some the breezy iconoclasm and irreverence of Ovid. Creating a sonic layer for such a good dance group in such a stimulating and supportive environment was a real privilege.

It was a pleasure to meander between the beds of flowers and aromatic plants of Ovid’s garden as Circe. Circe’ s episode - in the interest of time shortened to simply welcoming sailors and transforming them into pigs - invited its own interpretation of the Garden as a space. And the Garden magnificently supported this narrative by naturally defining three spaces. Beyond the central archway, through the luxuriant burgundy leaves of the copper beech hedge, was Circe’ s house. Hidden from view at first, her presence is only perceived through a hummed nostalgic tune sang over a simple rhythmic cord. Dressed in the blues and whites of the mediterranean island she inhabits, a lone soul, she soon emerges. Stepping out of her house, the violin replaces her sung voice; her eyes are mysteriously covered with a tan-coloured lace mask - is it protection? is it a prison? Regality and inscrutability characterise her: like an enchantress she has an extensive knowledge of herbs and their uses, she enjoys their living supportive presence; like a goddess, she is a sensual yet intimidating and charismatic presence. This garden is her garden, she enjoys it, relaxes into it, picks her plants to make her potions.  

Making her way towards the edge of the garden, she welcomes sailors just come ashore on the beach - the beach is the third space of this episode, materialised by the rectangular space of the path that lays between the audience (and the lawn beyond) and the garden. She offers them some potion, they drink, she touches the top of their heads with her wand - this all happens at the edge of the garden; it is only as pigs that Circe lets the sailors in, herds them with her wand (now a herding stick?) through the garden, up along the central alley towards the house. Her last gesture, before she walks over the threshold of her house again, is a repeat from the one she first made to the sailors: something between a “welcome” and a “look at this”, something between a “this is me” and a “come to me”.

It was such a treat to perform Circe in Ovid’s Garden: the clarity of its layout was a perfect environment to support the expression of Circe’ s inherent ambiguity.

We chose stories for this event that had outdoor locations which might be echoed by the real garden; thus Circe’ s herb garden, and the woods in which the nymphs Syrinx and Daphne flee their pursuers and are themselves transformed into plants. I was intrigued by the tale of Pan and Syrinx which offered the challenge of switching between two very contrasted characters with some comic potential; but also ultimately a poignancy and symbolism in its depiction of the nymph whose life and grace disappears into the musical instrument that Pan fashions from cut reeds, suggestively captured in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’ s poem A Musical Instrument.  Malcolm’s music heightened the contrast through use of a sinuous melodic line for Syrinx and an earthy rhythmic groove for Pan, combined in their chase; at the end the nymph’s soulful phrase emerges on the melodica as Pan plays his new instrument. 

Traces of Syrinx as huntress can be found in current contemporary female icons such as Lara Croft and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games; their archery and tough demeanour provided an inspiration for a less passive heroine, and specific gestural motifs as starting points to develop into dance.  Meanwhile images both ancient and from modern fantasy art of the priapic Pan provided the key for developing a more masculine and animal physicality, with goat hooves and exaggerated curling horns. The formality of the garden’ s symmetrical layout of plant beds and straight gravel pathways imposed a rigorous spatial design on dance improvisation, requiring detailed structuring for narrative clarity; the surface texture and deep surrounding foliage also further defining the palette of feasible and appropriate movement material. The challenge therefore to respond creatively in the moment to the garden as a new and enriching choreographic element potentially revealing further layers of meaning in Ovid’s potent myth; my response a work in progress.

It was a privilege to perform on Saturday in the very beautiful and evocative sensory 'living' museum that is Ovid’ s Garden. I presented two solo dance-theatre pieces, based on principles from the ancient Roman dance-theatre form, tragoedia saltata, where the dancing body (like the garden) also becomes a 'living museum piece' for an ancient form and an ancient text, and where what we might term the ‘ embodied archive’ produces a very 21st
century performance. The first piece, Medea, Mother of Dragons (with its nod to 21st century epic Game of Thrones), embodied Ovid’ s Medea as sorceress; the piece enacts an invocation, and plays with notions of exterior and interior landscapes, contrasting the order of the formal garden pathways and Medea’s “received behaviour” with the wild chaos of a shamanic ritual and the unleashing of unnatural forces. Apollo and Daphne, a new piece specially conceived for the space of Ovid’ s Garden, was a tragi-comic take on Ovid’s story: a jazz-dancing Apollo, complete with mirrored sunglasses, both looking and behaving utterly ridiculously, yet also a cruel predator, hunting down the young Daphne. Whilst playing comedically with the chase, I was keen to express the themes of predation and prey that are
evident in Ovid's text. The comic element came through strongly, especially with our ending of Apollo amorously caressing one of the laurels in the pots -and I can't help but think that the playful, subversive Ovid would have approved! 

Read Miriam Bay's account of the occasion and explanation of the project on her blog here

And you can read Katherine Aalto's talk Creating Gardens with Narratives here 

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