To bill a ‘cabaret-style night of magic’ in an 18th century Grand Ballroom is to commit to a certain set of promises. It awakens a curiosity for sensation, subversion even, but most avidly, a show. Curatorial organisation Three Blows deliver its mise en scène with flair—Cara Tolmie and Kimberley O’Neill’s syncopated compositions providing strange glue for vaudeville trappings and fragile staging. There is work of great nuance and interest here, but the necessary professionalism is fragmented in the disciplinary crossover, and much of the night’s heady atmosphere and dazzling veneer conceals the real strength of the performances.
The placement of objects and staging in the Ballroom is well conceived, but consideration of their relationship to the large, shifting audience has been neglected. A sheer curtain-cum-projection screen immediately splits the group and attentions are scattered from the outset—an awkward turn of events for Susie Green’s dance performance.
Purportedly inspired by the visions of 12th century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, it is unclear whether Green’s amateurishly performed routine aims to represent an earnest exploration into the power of movement, or whether it is firing a satirical pop at the hollow glamour of celebrity exercise tapes. Although belting out a rousing soundtrack, Green’s work—based on a polymath who has come to represent a magnificent fusion of divine inspiration and human intellect—falls short this time.
Suspicions aroused by Green’s use of the screen, intermittent attention is then paid to the collaborative work ‘An Infusion of the Evening Air’ by Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth. In a similar vein to their Frieze Projects presentation, ‘Players’, 2009, this comprises projections of live camera feeds from within the ballroom, working to create a claustrophobic sense of folding within the space. Arial views of the circular white stage are projected onto screens, floors and walls, simultaneously functioning as subject, spot and ambient light.
The re-framing of the staging of a live event is an idea that undoubtedly works to trigger uneasy questions. But with little space for the appreciation of the social mechanics thrown into play, Coleman and Hogarth’s intriguing effect is dwarfed and the audience’s spontaneous manipulations of the space instead causing an even greater sense of apprehension.
The animation of still objects, an idea touched on by Coleman and Hogarth’s mirror-like projections, proves central to Shelly Nadashi’s consummate performance of new work ‘Affectionate Still’. With a background training in live art, the artist holds an unmatched level of attention. Centring on the relations between an oversexed and posturing puppet, a reactionary performer and a fetishistic collection of personified objects (tomato, shoe), she spins a taut, satirical monologue. Chronicling a series of power struggles, the subject’s incessant search for control, and in turn, issues of sexuality, come to the fore.
Layered, suggestive and wholly considered, Nadashi’s articulation of her subject lays bare the unresolved allusions made to sex elsewhere. Contributing to a rather unhinged tone, the collaborative musical compositions of Cara Tolmie and Kimberley O’Neill are musically accomplished, but cast an air of odd, flirty glamour—animalistic trills twinned with childlike movements making for a sexy-butnot aesthetic.
This appears to be an unusual departure for Tolmie, whose previous text pieces and performance works are created from substantial, sophisticated arrangements. There is a prevailing sense, on this occasion, that the pair have made a significant detachment from their usual practices. Their compositions work to pull together disparate performances, cleverly calling into action objects that would not usually be found on the instrumental roster, but all done to some detriment of their individual artistic interests.
Amid the dispersed enchantment, the teeming and distracted crowd broadly overlooks the work of make-up artist Morag Ross (projected images of a young woman made up 1930s period style), which flashes by, relatively unnoticed. All lips, eyes and close-ups and working in tandem with Coleman and Hogarth’s closed circuit constellation, the images intend to cause a jolt in the proceedings. Should they have been allowed to come together in a less bustling environment, the intriguing propositions presented by this juxtaposition would have been more clearly articulated.
The one-off, live group performance presents high elements of risk to its curator (particularly when presenting to a festival crowd well versed in both alt-burlesque and the event-based format), and Three Blows boldly attempts to pull off an evening of cohesive magic. Yet the individual performances and interventions feel a little lost here. Not so Nadashi’s very strong work, which, in the end, acted as centrepiece to the event, the focus on her work marking the neglect of the rest.
Rosalie Doubal is a writer living in Edinburgh